March is nearly upon us, which means that a number of NBA teams are about to go on hot streaks in hopes of a positive run before the playoffs. Granted, some teams are locks to make it to the postseason, but others will have to work harder to get that far than others.
The Los Angeles Lakers are definitely one of those teams, and their overtaking the Portland Trail Blazers for the No. 9 spot in the Western Conference is a giant step in the right direction. However, catching up to the fast and feisty Houston Rockets is a whole other battle on its own.
In the East, the same can be said for the Chicago Bulls, who are slowly slipping down the totem pole thanks to an anemic offense.
These power rankings will determine just where each team stands as the playoff pushes begin, and just what each bubble team needs to do to not be on the outside looking in once the regular season wraps up.
*- Rankings are done based off of winning percentage, in descending order. Rankings are accurate as of Wednesday, February 27, 12:12 p.m. EST
1. San Antonio Spurs
Say what you want about the Spurs being an old team. This squad knows how to play and win together.
Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have already won three rings together and with a great deal of young talent helping to shoulder the load, there's no reason to believe that San Antonio will enter the postseason as anything but a No. 1 seed.
2. Miami Heat
Right on the Spurs' tail are the defending champion Miami Heat, enjoying another great season on the back of another MVP-caliber year from LeBron James and winners of 12 in a row. They say that the road to a title goes through South Beach, and this year will be no exception.
However, do not be so quick to say that the Heat will repeat as champions. While they are a lock to enter the playoffs as a top-tier seed, their interior defense has been terrible all season long. Currently, the defending champs are the worst rebounding team in the league.
Unless everyone starts playing with a sense of urgency on defense and start absolutely smothering their opposition, it could be a short postseason in South Beach. Given James' guarantee from 2010, that's not going to make fans happy.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Ever since Scott Brooks took over as head coach in 2008, this team has done nothing but improve. They made the NBA Finals last season and lost to Miami, and new attitudes from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have the Thunder looking like the team to beat yet again.
Barring major injuries to either star, look for OKC to be a strong playoff town again in 2013.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Lob City lives on as the fast-paced offense conducted by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin has the Clippers playing well again. The team has won six of seven and is on its way to yet another playoff berth, and the balanced bench headlined by Jamal Crawford and the dynamic Eric Bledsoe gives the team a distinct advantage compared to last year.
Just how well the speedy game matches up against defensive squads remains to be seen, but fans should definitely expect the Clippers to make a statement this season.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies lost their top scorer in Rudy Gay to a recent trade, but that has not stopped the team from still being one of the best defensive teams in the league. Memphis has won seven in a row and is ready to get to the postseason on the backs of a strong frontcourt headlined by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Throw in the pesky defense and three-point shooting of point guard Mike Conley, and the Grizzlies are not a team to be counted out, even if they don't have a pure scorer helping them.
6. Indiana Pacers
Here we have another streaking team, as the Pacers have won five straight. This young team has let defense lead the way from start to finish and currently ranks first in both rebounding and points allowed.
Roy Hibbert has abandoned hopes of turning around his poor shooting percentages and instead is focusing on being the best defensive center he can be, while Paul George has become a bona fide star in his own right.
Now that Danny Granger is back from knee surgery, Indiana is in a great position to be a surprise team in the playoffs and even make a potential run to the NBA Finals.
7. New York Knicks
The Knicks have been solid all year long, but have been slumping as of late thanks to poor defense. Now that the veteran Kenyon Martin is aboard to help in the low post, thus alleviating the void left by injuries to Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby, some improvement should be seen.
All issues aside, New York is a special squad. Carmelo Anthony is making a strong run to lead the league in scoring by season's end, and Tyson Chandler has been as solid as ever in the middle. Even Amar'e Stoudemire has shaken off missing the season's first two months en route to becoming a fine low post player off the bench.
Their wins may not be as pretty as some of the other elite teams', but the Knicks are definitely in a good position for a trip to the playoffs that does not end in the first round.
8. Denver Nuggets
George Karl's dribble-drive offense is finally in full force and while his decision to start Kosta Koufos at center over Javale McGee remains terribly frustrating, the Nuggets have looked good as of late.
The team has won three of four following a three-game losing streak, and the next six weeks provide a great mix of both playoff and lottery teams. This means that everyone from Ty Lawson, to Wilson Chandler, to even the scoring-struggling Andre Iguodala needs to be locked in and know their roles, with nobody trying too hard to be the star.
Communication is key at this point in the season, and Denver is definitely capable of running the table in that department.
9. Brooklyn Nets
Avery Johnson is out and P.J. Carlesimo is in, and the Nets have responded by going 20-10 under the interim coach. Star point guard Deron Williams is slowly starting to climb out of his shooting funk while Joe Johnson has been as clutch as ever. On defense, Brook Lopez has been remarkable.
Just how far they get in the postseason is debatable, but there's no denying that Brooklyn will be a team to watch over the rest of the regular season.
10. Atlanta Hawks
Now that Josh Smith is in Atlanta for at least the rest of this season, the Hawks have no excuse as to why they cannot finish the season with a bang. Smith has done a great job of becoming the team's top defender and scorer, and his effort combined with those of Al Horford and Jeff Teague should help Atlanta stay the course into the postseason.
The lack of a solid shooting guard could hurt them, but their overall commitment to defense and versatile approach can surely frustrate the opposition to the point where Atlanta gets at least a couple of playoff wins.
11. Golden State Warriors
A young run-and-gun team, Golden State has won three of four following a six-game losing streak. Just the same, fans should not get too excited with the playoffs still some weeks away.
Nothing against Stephen Curry or David Lee, but the Warriors' production outside of those two is very hit-or-miss. Klay Thompson is still learning how to be consistent on the NBA level, and the unpredictability of Andrew Bogut's health does not help matters either.
If Golden State is to succeed in the postseason, a strong collaborative effort and tons of consistency are going to be needed from everyone on the team. Otherwise, the return of playoff basketball to the Bay Area could be over just as soon as it begins.
12. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have a strong defense that ranks third in points allowed, but their scoring has really taken a hit this season with star point guard Derrick Rose rehabbing from ACL surgery. Chicago is 28th in points scored and with the growing possibility that Rose sits out the entire season, their playoff hopes look bleaker and bleaker.
The team is currently No. 6 in the Eastern Conference and has gone 4-8 in February. With the Boston Celtics hot on their tails, the Toros are really going to have to right the ship offensively if they want to enjoy any type of playoff success.
13. Utah Jazz
Like the Atlanta Hawks, the Jazz did not make a move at the trade deadline. Rather than spend the last six weeks of the regular season on new teams, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap will remain in Utah.
This means that the No. 7 Jazz need to look at the rest of this season with a farewell tour mentality. Both Jefferson and Millsap are almost definitely going to be gone via free agency, so why not make their last few weeks in Utah memorable ones with a long winning streak and successful run in the playoffs?
That's not going to be easy in the ultra-tough Western Conference, especially with the team's lack of solid depth at guard, but Millsap and Jefferson have carried their team this far. There's no reason to believe that they don't have enough gas in the tank for a playoff run that starts now.
14. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are an interesting squad. Jeremy Lin can be a great scoring point guard on occasion, and James Harden has lived up to being the superstar fans knew he could be in a starting role.
The rest of Houston's roster, however, is hit or miss besides Chandler Parsons. Omer Asik is a solid defensive center, but still has a lot to learn as his offensive game develops.
More importantly, what about the team's issues at the 4? Granted, trading Patrick Patterson for Thomas Robinson was a good move, but the Rockets also have rookie Terrence Jones to think about. And what if Robinson proves to be a bust and not the solid stretch 4 head coach Kevin McHale needs him to be?
That's all pure speculation, as Robinson has not even debuted for the Rockets yet, but it's still something that must be considered. Houston has been hot and cold all season and with the Los Angeles Lakers gearing up for a run of their own, the Rockets could be in trouble unless they are able to maintain their lead in the playoff race.
15. Boston Celtics
Boston has not performed up to par this season, especially after coming within a win of the NBA Finals in 2012. However, ever since Rajon Rondo suffered his fateful ACL injury, the Celtics have gotten more focused and have gone 10-4.
The defense is starting to toughen up, and the aging veterans in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are starting to step up their efforts. Throw in that Danny Ainge acquired a solid scorer and shooter in Jordan Crawford at the deadline and the Boston fans should get excited for another year of playoff basketball, assuming that the Celts can stay the course.
16. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are the definition of a team with an identity crisis, primarily because their backcourt starters consist of two score-first players in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. GM John Hammond trading for J.J. Redick at the deadline was a good move, but does not take away from how much work the team has to do prior to the playoffs.
Milwaukee is currently No. 8 in the East and will likely hold that lead, but are almost definitely going to face the Miami Heat in the first round. Barring a major defensive turnaround and transforming the offense into more than just the Brandon & Monta Show, this team will basically be a lock to be swept out of the first round.
17. Los Angeles Lakers
It's no secret that LA has underachieved this season, particularly since the team's lineup is studded with stars from future Hall-of-Famers in Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash as well as three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. As much as it may hurt to hear, head coach Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense is not right for the team as it is.
However, that still has not stopped the Lakers from banding together and doing their best to at least try and make the best of the situation. Howard still has not become a consistent pick-and-roll big man as the offense requires him to do, but Bryant has done an excellent job in shifting from pure scoring to a playmaker's role.
Los Angeles has played well enough to overtake the Portland Trail Blazers as the No. 9 team in the West, but still sit three games behind the Houston Rockets. Only 11 of their remaining games are against lottery teams, making the next six weeks quite an uphill battle.
Just the same, this team has the experience and spunk to go on a run. Given how used the players are to winning, the Lakers definitely have the chance of making the postseason so long as the current approach remains the primary attack.
18. Portland Trail Blazers
Even with the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year in Damian Lillard and a fine big man in LaMarcus Aldridge, there's no way that Portland will make the playoffs. Head coach Terry Stotts has the team playing with the right attitude, but the squad as a whole is just too young to go on a run now and the lack of a solid veteran leader can only hurt them.
Portland has gone 3-8 in February and barring a miracle, it's going to be another long offseason in the Rose City.
19. Dallas Mavericks
It must stink to be a Mavericks fan. Just two years after a championship season, the team seems destined to end up in the draft lottery due to not having a solid defensive center to help shut down the opposition. Having an aging star in Dirk Nowitzki does not help matters either.
Dallas is only six games under .500, but the Western Conference is competitive to the point where a playoff run will take more than just a lengthy winning streak. At this point, all fans can really do is wait for free agency to begin, when the Mavericks are expected to make a strong pitch to Dwight Howard.
20. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have indeed looked better since acquiring Rudy Gay, but still are too young to make a strong enough statement at this point in the season and are highly unlikely to make the playoffs. Toronto is No. 9 in the East, but stands five games behind the Milwaukee Bucks.
Long story short, the only way that the Raptors get back to the postseason is by going on a long winning streak while Milwaukee simultaneously undergoes a massive collapse. Neither team is strong nor weak enough for that to happen, so fans north of the border will have to wait another year to see their team take that next step forward.
21. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers have lost six in a row, and the young dynamic duo of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner appears to have run out of gas. As much potential as this team has, the lack of a bona fide star is going to hurt them as the regular season winds down.
This, of course, can be attributed to center Andrew Bynum not playing at all this season due to chronically injured knees. Unless he manages to return tomorrow and give Philadelphia the explosiveness it has lacked in the middle all season long, the Sixers will end the season hoping for a good spot in the draft lottery and not success in the playoffs.
22. Detroit Pistons
Even with a true pass-first point guard in Jose Calderon, the Pistons are destined to finish the season on a sour note. The team has no veteran scorer outside of Calderon that can score points at a high volume and consistently well, and rookie big man Andre Drummond being on the shelf with a back injury leaves a gaping hole on defense.
Detroit is a young squad that does indeed have strong potential, but it's definitely not going to be reached this season.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves
Thanks to injuries, Minnesota is a team that's being held together by Scotch tape. Kevin Love has broken his hand twice and is currently on the shelf, while Brandon Roy's comeback has been a complete and utter failure thanks to his knees.
Ricky Rubio provides some fire on the court along with Nikola Pekovic, but that still does not take away from the fact that the Timberwolves' season is lost. At this point, all they can do is hope for better luck in 2013-14.
24. New Orleans Hornets
This team has a ton of potential once they become the Pelicans next season, but are not very strong as of now. Eric Gordon is a decent scorer, but is a bit too trigger-happy at times. Anthony Davis has a great future ahead of him, but still has a lot to learn as a rookie, as does Austin Rivers.
Moreover, the lack of a solid go-to scorer outside of Gordon is going to hurt the team until that hole is filled. Nothing against the rest of the team, but the lack of that type of presence is painfully obvious.
Thankfully, GM Dell Demps should earn a favorable spot in the draft lottery and New Orleans can draft the next piece of its future while looking forward to a new era as the Pelicans.
25. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland's greatest problem is its youth, though Kyrie Irving is turning into a phenomenal scoring point guard. The only problem is that his go-to guys are just as young and inexperienced as he is, which does not help the young Cavs at all. Not even a strong winning streak would get the team into the playoffs this season, as the squads ahead of it are unlikely to collapse at the same time.
Some may say that this young team can't win as is, but I disagree. The Cavaliers do have a bright future, but it's just going to take time for everyone to settle into their roles and adjust to the NBA level.
Once that happens, expect this team to come charging out of the shadow of the LeBron James era and to establish a legacy all its own.
26. Phoenix Suns
This Suns team is just plain bad. Goran Dragic is talented, but not the point guard needed for a fast-paced offense. Michael Beasley underachieving all season long does not help matters either.
Team ownership is going to have a lot of work to do this offseason, as there is no real way to tell what direction the franchise will be headed in for the near future.
27. Sacramento Kings
This team is a complete and utter mess, from the lack of identity to a lineup that is just plain bad, save for center DeMarcus Cousins. Hopefully, assuming the sale to a group from Seattle goes through, the Kings can move forward and not be stuck in a weak basketball market that the Maloofs ran into the ground.
This is a squad that deserves to win and compete for a championship, but that's sadly not going to happen this year.
28. Washington Wizards
The Wizards have gone 13-8 since John Wall returned to the lineup, and he and Bradley Beal are forming a strong backcourt tandem with a great deal of potential in the future. Unfortunately, it's too little too late for Washington this season.
The team is way too young and has no veteran leader that can produce consistently on both sides of the floor, which means that the nation's capitol will be without playoff ball once again.
29. Orlando Magic
Despite potential on defense, there is no luster to the Magic this season. Trading J.J. Redick marked another cruel chapter of the rebuilding phase, and the lack of a superstar is not going to help the team this year or in those to come.
Team management had better hope that Moe Harkless and the number of other draft prospects that will be selected in the near future pan out, as they will be the keys to rebuilding the team. Otherwise, Orlando will become a cellar team for the next few seasons and then some.
30. Charlotte Bobcats
Once again, this team finds itself at the bottom of the barrel. The lack of scoring and defense is borderline shocking, and one would think that team ownership would have at least taken a step forward in rebuilding the roster by now.
The only bright spot is point guard Kemba Walker, who needs a go-to scorer to continue developing. Until the Bobcats have that piece, along with a solid defender, the team's hopes of a playoff run at any point will be mere dreams.