It's amazing how much action the NBA packs into the shortest month on the calendar. All-Star weekend and the trade deadline contributed plenty of intrigue to February 2013 in the Association.
But, of course, the real excitement has stemmed from the meaningful action that's taken place on courts across North America. Four teams—the Miami Heat, the San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers—will finish the month with at least 40 wins and, most likely, a guarantee on a winning season, at the very least.
There's been plenty of rustling in the standings beneath the elite in the meantime. The Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks are locked in a battle for the second seed in the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets and the Chicago Bulls aren't all that far behind and, out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are carefully positioning themselves to snag a postseason spot from one of the three among the Utah Jazz, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors.
How do all 30 teams stack up as we approach the final full month of the regular season? Read on to find out!
The end of yet another miserable regular season can't come soon enough for the Charlotte Bobcats. They rank 29th in both offensive and defensive efficiency and, at 13-43, are two games in the loss column "ahead" of the Orlando Magic in the race for NBA draft lottery ping-pong balls. Expect the losses to continue to pile up this week when Charlotte hits the road for a four-game Western Conference swing.
Oh, and the 'Cats failed to unload Ben Gordon at the trade deadline after the veteran scoring guard got into it with first-year head coach Mike Dunlap in practice.
But hey, at least Charlotte won't be able to break its own record for the worst winning percentage in NBA history. That's good news, right?
It never gets any easier for the Orlando Magic. Their 24-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 23 was their fifth in a row. The Magic have now registered four separate skids of five games or more this season.
To be sure, Orlando's latest slide pales in comparison to the 10-gamer and 12-gamer that officially sent the team into a tailspin between late December and early February. And, realistically, this sort of misery is precisely what management anticipated (and wanted) after dumping Dwight Howard this past summer.
Still, trading away J.J. Redick (i.e. one of the lone bright spots in Orlando's season) at the deadline comes, in some ways, as just another insult to slap onto the injurious season the Magic have now authored for themselves.
You know things are bad for the Sacramento Kings when the battle between the cities of Seattle and Sacramento over the organization's future is more competitive than the team itself. Their current five-game slide figures to continue with road dates against the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs coming up.
Luckily, they'll have a meeting with the Magic in between those two likely blowouts to potentially stem the tide...or to exacerbate the misery. Depends on your perspective, I suppose.
In any case, the importance of the on-court goings-on of the Kings pales in comparison to that of recent developments in the fight over the franchise. The task returns to Sacramento and Mayor Kevin Johnson to devise a new proposal to keep the team in town now that Seattle's plan for a new arena has survived yet another legal challenge (per The News Tribune).
The stronger Steve Nash gets with his new team, the weaker his old team seems to become.
The Phoenix Suns have now slunk to dead last in the Western Conference by way of three losses in a row and seven in their last eight games. They were working the phones as hard as anyone in the days and weeks leading up to the trade deadline, but fell short in their attempts to land a marquee player (i.e. Rudy Gay, Josh Smith).
Instead, the Suns will have to settle for a stretch run highlighted by a reunion of the Morris twins after acquiring Marcus from the Houston Rockets for a second-round pick on Feb. 20.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been surprisingly competitive of late. They've held their own against the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs while racking up wins against the New Orleans Hornets and the Orlando Magic in between.
It certainly helps to have an All-Star (and budding superstar) like Kyrie Irving on board. The development of Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson and the additions of Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington to the bench have upped the ante a bit in the Rock and Roll Capital.
Now, if only the Cavs defense were a step or two above "awful," they might yet turn a few of those close losses into wins.
The end is nigh for the New Orleans Hornets, but the Pelicans have a bright future ahead of them.
That is, if Eric Gordon can ever stay healthy for more than a few weeks at a time. The Hornets are 11-10 this season when "EJ" plays, as opposed to 9-27 when he's out of commission. His ability to get his own shot and pour in 20-plus points on a nightly basis makes him an invaluable part of New Orleans' future, even more so after the spate of trade rumors that surrounded his every move.
Not that he's necessarily the center of the Hornets' universe. The team features no fewer than three players who are in the mix for individual end-of-season awards—Greivis Vasquez for Most Improved, Ryan Anderson for Sixth Man and Anthony Davis for Rookie of the Year—and a head coach, in Monty Williams, who has his guys playing hard from game to game.
But really, without Eric Gordon, the Hornets would be left to allow Austin Rivers to submarine their season to an even more egregious degree.
But even Eric Gordon's impact on the Hornets is dwarfed by that of John Wall on the Washington Wizards. They've morphed into a dangerous outfit since Wall returned from knee troubles. The Wizards have won 12 of 21 games with their third-year point guard after emerging victorious just five times in their first 33.
Randy Wittman has done a sneaky-respectable job of turning Washington's defense into a top-10 outfit, with the help of Emeka Okafor, Nene and Trevor Ariza, among others. But it's Wall whose play has been most pivotal in turning around the league's least productive offense, slowly but surely. The Wizards have averaged 100.9 points per 100 possessions with Wall in the lineup—a vast improvement over the 93.1 points per 100 possessions they posted prior to his return.
The Detroit Pistons' future is essentially on hold until Andre Drummond's back heals up.
Not that they haven't registered some noteworthy blips on the NBA radar. The Pistons punctured the Spurs' 11-game winning streak in early February, immediately after Drummond's temporary relegation to bongo duty.
Aside from that, though, Detroit has all but guaranteed itself a fourth straight trip to the lottery. They've recently been punked by the Hornets, the Grizzlies and the Pacers (twice), with wins over the Wizards and the Bobcats serving as the lone reprieves.
In other words, get well soon, Andre. YouTube misses you.
You know something has hit the fan when your head coach is busy bemoaning the nightly box scores of a lightly used rookie swingman.
On another team, no less.
That's what the 2012-13 season has come to for the Philadelphia 76ers and head coach Doug Collins. According to NBA insider Ric Bucher, Collins has been obsessing over the play of Maurice Harkless, who was sent to the Orlando Magic in the deal that brought Andrew Bynum to the City of Brotherly Love.
Harkless, by the way, is averaging 5.8 points and 4.1 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game this season. If Collins really wants to get weepy about what might've been, he'd do well to keep track of Nikola Vucevic. The second-year center out of USC is averaging 12.3 points and 11.4 rebounds in 32.6 minutes since leaving the Keystone State for Central Florida.
Of course, none of this would be of much concern to Collins if Bynum had a legitimate shot at playing this season, or better yet, if his Sixers weren't four games back of a playoff spot in the wake of a five-game slide.
Kevin Love is reportedly eyeing an early to mid-March return from surgery on his broken hand (per the AP). That should leave him with 15 to 20 games in which to recapture his groove and help the Minnesota Timberwolves end a disappointing 2012-13 season on a high note.
In the meantime, T-Wolves fans can take comfort in the brilliance of Ricky Rubio. The second-year wunderkind appears to be finding his groove again. Over his last nine games, Rubio is averaging 14.4 points, 9.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 3.1 steals in 34.6 minutes per game.
A 92-86 win over the Boston Celtics couldn't have come soon enough for the Portland Trail Blazers. That result ended a seven-game losing streak for the Blazers, during the course of which they fell out of the postseason picture and behind the Los Angeles Lakers in the race for the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
To be sure, Portland's regression was bound to hit at some point. The Blazers sport the NBA's shallowest bench, have fallen to 25th in defensive efficiency and still rely all too heavily on Rookie of the Year favorite Damian Lillard to run their inconsistent offense.
Nonetheless, the run was fun while it lasted. The Blazers may yet make one last push for the playoffs, but, chances are, they'll be preparing for a return trip to the lottery before Game No. 82 comes due.
Don't look now, but the Toronto Raptors may yet have a bead on the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. They've won seven of 10 games since ripping Rudy Gay away from the Memphis Grizzlies, with noteworthy victories over the Los Angeles Clippers, the Denver Nuggets, the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks (twice).
Despite this recent run of success, the Raps remain four games back of the final postseason berth in the East. But with the Milwaukee Bucks slip-slidin' away and dates with the Cavs, the Wizards, the Suns and (yes) the Bucks upcoming, T-Dot is well-positioned to make a run at its first post-Chris Bosh playoff appearance in the weeks to come.
Apparently, the Milwaukee Bucks have been listening to too much Tom Petty of late.
Either that, or they'd rather not trouble the Eastern Conference playoffs with their presence. The Bucks have dropped three in a row, seven of eight and nine of 11 since moving a season-high five games over .500 on Jan. 29.
To be sure, Milwaukee's been victimized by a rather sharp razor on some close shaves. Of those nine defeats, six have come by 10 points or fewer, including the last three by an average of two points per outing.
But close losses count just the same in the standings as do blowouts. For now, the Bucks can only hope that the arrival of J.J. Redick will revitalize their fading playoff hopes.
And, moreover, that the Raptors and the Sixers don't catch fire in the meantime.
Good news for the Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki's finally hitting his stride. Over his last nine games, Nowitzki is averaging 19.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals while knocking down a sizzling 53.8 percent of his three-point attempts.
Bad news: the Mavs remain four-and-a-half games back of a playoff spot in the West. After Sunday's loss, Dallas will now have to leapfrog the Blazers, the Lakers and either the Rockets or the Jazz just to extend their postseason streak to a less-than-lucky 13 straight appearances.
There may be hope for the Mavs yet, though. Dallas has plenty of veteran players on whom to lean, including Dirk, whose season-high 30 against L.A. may well have signaled the start of a productive stretch run for the aging German giant.
So much for the Ewing Theory.
A 92-86 loss to the Blazers on Feb. 24 dropped the Boston Celtics to 2-4 in their last six games. This, after ripping off seven straight wins in the immediate aftermath of Rajon Rondo's torn ACL.
The C's can thank the bumbling Bucks for solidifying their own standing as the seventh seed in the East, which figures to land them a first-round matchup with either the Indiana Pacers or the New York Knicks. In either case, it's tough to imagine Boston bouncing a top seed from the playoffs, what with the team's reliance on aging Hall of Famers (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) on one end and inconsistent youngsters (Jeff Green and Jordan Crawford) on the other.
Not until Rondo returns next season shall the twain meet.
As a lifelong Angeleno, I'll admit that I'm tempted to put the Los Angeles Lakers higher on this list. They've now won 11 of their last 15 games to move within a game of the break-even mark for the first time since New Year's Day. Along the way, Kobe Bryant has rediscovered his scoring touch while stimulating the sharing gene, and Steve Nash appears to be rounding back into playing shape at long last.
But the news isn't all good in Lakerland just yet. Dwight Howard's play remains inconsistent, Pau Gasol might not be back in action until April and the Lakers are still two-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
For the time being, then, the Purple and Gold will simply have to settle for being ahead of two Eastern Conference playoff teams and owning the dubious distinction of "Best Team Not Currently in the Postseason Picture."
There's something about playing in Salt Lake City that gets the Utah Jazz going. The crowds at EnergySolutions Arena have long been known to be among the rowdiest in the NBA, for better or worse (see: Fisher, Derek).
It should come as little surprise, then, that this young Jazz squad has gone 21-6 at home so far. Neither should it shock anyone that Utah is an abysmal 10-19 outside the bounds of the Beehive State.
Case in point: The Jazz trampled the Oklahoma City Thunder by 15 points on Feb. 13, just four days after losing to the clumsy Kings in Sacramento by 11.
This disparity probably wouldn't be so problematic going forward had the Jazz managed to flip Al Jefferson and/or Paul Millsap for some help at guard. Instead, they'll ride out the rest of the regular season and (perhaps) an impending first-round playoff exit with a crowded frontcourt and a subpar stash of perimeter players.
Jekyll, meet Hyde. Hyde, meet the Houston Rockets.
There may not be a streakier squad in the NBA today than Kevin McHale's Rockets. On the one hand, they've spent the month of February demolishing the Golden State Warriors, outlasting the Brooklyn Nets, upending the Thunder and nearly knocking off the scorching hot Miami Heat. On the other hand, they've also fallen victim to the not-so-mighty Kings and the woeful Wizards.
The latest loss to Washington was particularly brutal. Houston sped out to a 17-point lead in D.C. behind an impressive barrage of three-pointers, with 19 makes out of an NBA season-high 46 attempts in all.
But the Wizards stormed back by pounding the Rockets inside, most notably by targeting Carlos Delfino at "power forward."
Even so, Houston's ceiling is arguably the highest of any of the bottom-four playoff teams in the Western Conference. That should only improve over time as gifted rookie Thomas Robinson finds his way into the existing core of James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik.
At long last, the Warriors' midseason nightmare has come to a close. Golden State has followed up a season-worst six-game slide with a three-game winning streak, highlighted by an overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs.
Granted, the Spurs were playing the second of a back-to-back and were nearing the end of their annual rodeo road trip. But the win counts all the same for the Warriors, as well it should. The recent uptick has strengthened Golden State's claim on the sixth seed and put the team within striking distance of the Denver Nuggets, who can't seem to buy a win beyond the confines of the Rocky Mountains.
Let's just hope that the Dubs don't trot out those sleeved, hipster honey-bee uniforms too often, lest they incur the wrath of the Fashion Police.
Good on the Atlanta Hawks for hanging on to Josh Smith. The alleged package on offer from the Bucks was hardly anything to write home about, much less pull the trigger on.
What's more, the Hawks figure to have an excellent shot at retaining Smith, an Atlanta native who's spent his entire NBA career with his hometown team. Even if Josh decides to walk in July, the Hawks can always work out a sign-and-trade with his other suitor and/or hoard the valuable cap space that'll come from parting ways with the borderline All-Star.
In the meantime, the Hawks can look forward to a potential playoff battle against either the Knicks, the Nets or the Pacers, with Smith still on their side to help make some noise.
The Chicago Bulls may be the most volatile commodity on the NBA's stock market at the moment.
The Bulls have hung around the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture all season without Derrick Rose, thanks in large part to stellar team defense and the tremendous play of All-Stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. Chicago clearly lacks a playmaker in the backcourt of any sort (much less of D-Rose's caliber), and, as such, would presumably be a threat to the established order with the 2010-11 MVP back in the mix.
But despite all of the positive signs—including the dunk above—Rose's return for the 2012-13 season remains in doubt. All the while, Reggie Rose, Derrick's brother and manager, has taken to ripping the Bulls for doing little to improve their roster. His comments, though, read like someone threatening to hold Derrick's future hostage until the organization does as the family pleases.
Hence, the Bulls' prospects currently range from anywhere between a potential push into the Eastern Conference Finals and an early start to the offseason after a first-round ouster.
The Brooklyn Nets can ill afford to lose Joe Johnson for any significant period of time if they're to hang on to home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference. Johnson's missed the last two games (both Nets losses) with a bruised left heel, clearing way for the less-than-incomparable C.J. Watson to start in his place next to Deron Williams.
The absence of Iso Joe's scoring punch was all too apparent on Feb. 24 when Brooklyn blundered its way to 72 points on 37.7 percent shooting in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Luckily, the Grizz are no great juggernaut either; they managed just 76 points themselves.
But the Nets clearly missed Johnson's scoring ability in the clutch. They missed their last five shots of the game while relinquishing a 9-0 scoring run over the final two minutes and 31 seconds of the fourth quarter to give the game away to the Grizz.
Life outside the Pepsi Center has been none too kind to the Denver Nuggets. A 113-99 win over the bumbling Bobcats "improved" Denver's road record to 12-19 on the season and was the team's first victory away from home since a 111-103 result in Cleveland.
In between, the Nuggets dropped four out of four on the road, including a triple-OT thriller in Boston, a buzzer-beater in Toronto (albeit while short-handed) and a six-point stunner in D.C.
As such, Denver had better hope the Grizzlies cool off sooner rather than later, lest the Nuggets be forced to scrap for wins outside of the Mile High City come playoff time.
The New York Knicks needed a boost from somewhere in the wake of a four-game skid, and got just that from Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire during a 99-93 win over the Sixers on Feb. 24. Anthony dropped a team-high 29 points, with a 16-of-18 performance from the free-throw line to boost his bottom line.
But Stoudemire was the real story. He scored a season-high 22 points on 9-of-10 shooting from the field in just 22 minutes, albeit against a depleted Philly front line. Still, the Knicks should take heart in seeing steadier contributions from STAT these days.
They'll need everything their $100 million man can offer down the stretch of the season if they're to assert themselves as something more than just conference semifinals fodder for the Heat or Pacers.
At surface level, the Rudy Gay trade seems to be working out just fine for the Memphis Grizzlies. They've now won seven games in a row to move three games clear of the Nuggets in the race for fourth place out West and within a game-and-a-half of the third-place Los Angeles Clippers.
Of course, there's plenty of fault to be found in even these most uplifting of results. Five of the seven wins have come against teams with losing records, and the latest battle with Brooklyn featured Joe Johnson in his finest non-basketball attire.
Memphis' upcoming schedule is quite friendly, save for an away date with the Heat on March 1 and a three-game roadie against the Clips, the Nuggets and the Jazz in the middle of the month. We'll know more about how far Memphis can ride its grind come playoff time after those games have come and gone.
At long last, Danny Granger is back. And while his opening salvo against the Detroit Pistons (two points on 1-of-10 from the field) was anything but impressive, Granger's mere presence has to come as considerable encouragement to the Indiana Pacers.
Their defense (tops in the NBA in efficiency) has been stellar all season, but the offense suffered a significant setback when Granger's long-term absence became a reality. Indy's productivity on that end has since improved drastically, up to 20th in offensive efficiency with the All-Star play of Paul George, the emergence of Lance Stephenson and the steady play of David West.
If Granger can regain his scoring touch in time for the postseason, the Pacers, with their size up front and skill on the perimeter, may well be able to challenge the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It's all well and good that the Los Angeles Clippers can beat up on the Lakers, the Jazz and the Rockets, as they have of late. But recent blowout losses to the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs suggest more about the Clips' capabilities than do bully jobs against mid-tier teams.
Los Angeles' 116-90 loss to San Antonio was particularly telling. The way the Spurs ran their sets to perfection—and the way Tony Parker had his way with Chris Paul—hearkened back to last year's playoff sweep between these two teams.
Granted, the Clips beat the Spurs the first two times they met this season. Still, it was troubling to see L.A. struggle so mightily against San Antonio sans Kawhi Leonard, even with their own stable finally complete. If the Clippers can't generate half-court offense and/or force their opponents into myriad mistakes, they'll be hard-pressed to win a seven-game series against an opponent as well-schooled in the basics of basketball as are the Spurs.
What are we to think about the Oklahoma City Thunder now that they've signed (per the AP) Derek Fisher off the scrap heap? Is he merely to serve as an insurance policy behind Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson now that Eric Maynor is a member of the Blazers?
Or are the Thunder counting on a 38-year-old who hasn't played since mid-December to step in and contribute in a meaningful way as Westbrook's primary backup?
If it's the former, then the addition of D-Fish can only strengthen the resolve of OKC's locker room in preparation for another deep postseason run. If it's the latter, then Russ had better get his schizophrenic tendencies in order, lest the Thunder be left to rely on the aging Fisher to contribute consistently and meaningfully to a team in need of another steady hand.
The San Antonio Spurs are on track to snag the best record in the NBA for the third season running. They're winning games despite a smattering of injuries, thanks to the contributions of a deep and superbly coached bench. They'll soon return home having gone 7-2 on their annual rodeo road trip.
And, better yet, Tony Parker is playing like an MVP and Tim Duncan like a player five years his junior.
So why isn't San Antonio sitting in the top spot?
As great as the Spurs have played during the regular season, they seem to lack another gear into which they can "kick it" once the postseason rolls around. It's all well and good that San Antonio can beat up on all comers in single-game scenarios, but what happens when the Spurs have to grind it out against, say, the Grizzlies or the Thunder?
Can they survive the onslaught of the playoffs with a frontcourt consisting primarily of an aging Timmy and Tiago Splitter? What happens if/when the same injuries that've plagued Leonard, Manu Ginobili and others don't quit come mid-April?
The Spurs, for their part, will have ample opportunity to answer these and other questions during the stretch run.
The Miami Heat have officially left the rest of the Eastern Conference behind. They've won 11 in a row to move a full six games clear of the Indiana Pacers in the race for the top seed. That stretch has seen the Heat top the 100-point plateau nine times and hold the opposition below triple digits on seven occasions.
LeBron James has done plenty to strengthen his case for a fourth MVP in five years therein, even in the aftermath of his run of 30-plus points on 60 percent shooting in six straight games. The same goes for Miami in its quest for a second consecutive title.
As such, expect James and the Heat to remain the front-runners in their respective (and collective) races until proven otherwise.
Also, can we please put the LeBron-to-Cleveland speculation to bed for a bit? At least until the 2013-14 season?! IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?!