The closing weeks of the NBA season will provide an opportunity for fringe playoff teams like the Los Angeles Lakers to make a final postseason push and for Eastern Conference contenders to jockey for preferable seeding.
With playoff fates hanging in the balance, the homestretch should make for some dramatic theater. Play will intensify as the season winds down, and as fans, we'll be treated to some of the best basketball we've seen all season.
As several teams begin to shoot up the standings and others begin to plummet into irrelevancy, it's time to evaluate where each franchise will find itself comes season's end.
Unfortunately, the Charlotte Bobcats are well on their way to finishing with the NBA's worst record for the second consecutive season.
The good news is that they're improving, albeit quite slowly.
In just his second season, Kemba Walker is proving to be an efficient and sometimes lethal offensive weapon.
Averaging 17.3 points (42.4 percent shooting from the field and 35.2 percent from three), 5.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game, Walker appears to be on the verge of breaking out.
Ranking eighth in PER among point guards, get ready for Walker to lead the Bobcats to an improved record in 2013-14.
The Orlando Magic's season will end in disappointing fashion, but the team's recent trade of J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks appears to have been yet another strong move by general manager Rob Hennigan.
Thus far, the big prize in the trade has been Tobias Harris, who has averaged 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds a night since coming over in the deadline deal.
With a roster that's stacked with young assets, the Magic should be an interesting team to watch develop over the next few seasons.
Between injuries to Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving, 2012-13 has not been the kindest of seasons to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Nevertheless, the Cavs have shown mild promise, with rookie Dion Waiters coming on as of late.
With the postseason an unattainable goal, Waiters has taken advantage of some hefty minutes, averaging 22.8 points per game over his past five.
Just like the Washington Wizards, the Cavaliers appear to have struck gold with their lottery selection, pairing up a volume scorer with an emerging point guard.
With such an offensively gifted backcourt, it's only a matter of time before the Cavs re-emerge as Eastern Conference contenders.
The Washington Wizards thrived in February, going 7-5 over a 12-game stretch.
Although the team is staring at a lottery selection instead of a postseason berth, the Wizards have plenty to build on heading into next season.
The team's defense has looked phenomenal as of late, ranking sixth in the league in opponents' points per game and fifth in defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.
With their starting backcourt of the future set with John Wall and Bradley Beal, expect the Wizards to address their depth on the wing this offseason. They will look to prime themselves for a run at one of the Eastern Conference's very attainable low playoff seeds next season.
An afterthought entering the 2012-13 season, the Detroit Pistons have acquitted themselves nicely, proving that they have the young pieces necessary to compete in the long term.
With a starting frontcourt consisting of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, the Pistons look like they're just a quality wing or two away from competing for the conference's eighth seed.
Jose Calderon has brought stability to the team's backcourt, and if Joe Dumars can convince him to re-up with the team in the offseason, the Pistons will have a nice core to build around.
The most fascinating piece to watch in the long term will be Drummond, who posted a ridiculous per-36-minute line of 13.3 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 1.7 steals, according to Basketball-Reference, before injuring his back.
Oh, how times have changed. Once in contention for the Eastern Conference's eighth seed, the Sixers fell flat on their faces in February. They recorded a miserable 3-8 record, including seven straight losses.
While point guard Jrue Holiday is still firmly in the running for the league's Most Improved Player Award, the development of backcourt mate Evan Turner has not been nearly as rapid or encouraging.
Turner's field-goal percentage is down to 42.3 percent from a mark of 44.6 a year ago, and a big reason for that decline may be due to the Sixers' overarching offensive philosophy.
Possessing one of the league's most timid offenses, the Sixers have been overly reliant on long two-point jumpers to stay competitive, which has not been often.
According to HoopData, the Sixers rank first in the NBA in field-goal attempts from 16-23 feet, a distance from which they're making just 33.9 percent of their shots.
The Toronto Raptors have shown some life since acquiring Rudy Gay in a three-team deal with the Memphis Grizzlies and Detroit Pistons. They posted their first winning record over a one-month span, going 7-5 in February.
Currently sitting one game behind the Philadelphia 76ers in the Atlantic Division standings, the Raptors have a real chance of leapfrogging their division foes and climbing out of the cellar as the season draws to a close.
Another encouraging note: According to Basketball-Reference, the five-man unit consisting of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas is plus-22.9 in the plus/minus.
It may be too late to fight for a playoff spot, but the Raptors' revamped lineup has plenty of reasons to hold their heads high.
The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves in an enviable position, seven games up on the Philadelphia 76ers for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
In a conference that's riddled with average teams, competition for one of the lower seeds figured to be just a bit more fierce.
Instead, the Bucks will coast into the NBA playoffs, although they're likely to be faced with an unpleasant matchup come the first round.
The Miami Heat and their championship pedigree await Milwaukee in a series that, by all indications, will end in a four-game sweep by the defending champions.
The Bucks' perimeter scoring trio of Brandon Jennings, J.J. Redick and Monta Ellis has boosted the team's profile, but they still have plenty of road to travel before they can be talked about in the same sentence as the conference's elite.
The way the Boston Celtics finish the regular season could very well end up influencing the outcomes of several first-round playoff series.
Currently slotted as the seventh seed, the Celtics figure to have a good chance of matching up with the Indiana Pacers in the first round.
While the Pacers are the league's preeminent defensive team (allowing 89.6 opponent points per game), their offense lags far behind.
It's a similar story for the Celtics, who will need to keep up their strong play without All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo.
Should the Celtics meet the Pacers in the first round, the potential for an upset will linger.
However, should the Celtics sneak into the sixth seed ahead of a team like the Brooklyn Nets, Boston could be in for a first-round duel with the New York Knicks, a team whose offensive firepower could prove to be too overwhelming for Doc Rivers' undermanned bunch.
Although they haven't wowed anyone as of late, I'm inclined to give the Brooklyn Nets the benefit of the doubt here.
As previously mentioned, the Nets could very well slip into the seventh seed behind the Boston Celtics, but a steadily improving Deron Williams should help Brooklyn's finest fend off the pesky C's.
Williams has a shot a miserable 41.7 percent from the field this season, but his numbers from the field and from three have ticked up since the All-Star break (43.8 percent and 45.5 percent, respectively).
There's no reason to think the Nets will make a deep run into the postseason, but there's enough talent there for the team to maintain a hold on a top-six seed with just over a month remaining.
Don't look now, but the Chicago Bulls sit just four games behind the Indiana Pacers for the Central Division lead. They are also close with the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks, battling for the Eastern Conference's fourth seed.
With Derrick Rose's return looking none too certain, the Bulls figure to rely heavily on their vaunted defense, led by the electric Joakim Noah.
Noah's play this season has been worthy of Defensive Player of the Year honors, as the Bulls center is averaging 2.3 blocks, 1.3 steals and has a defensive rating of 97, per Basketball-Reference.
As always, expect Tom Thibodeau's bunch to be a tough out come playoff time.
It's not every day that a top-five seed is considered a dark horse, but when you're fighting for media spotlight with the Miami Heat and New York Knicks, that will happen to you.
The Atlanta Hawks have quietly been taking care of business, securing a 7-4 record in the month of February and averaging a season-high 102.4 points per game for the month, according to Basketball-Reference.
One player whose play we must highlight here is Jeff Teague, who was sensational in February, averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 assists per game while shooting a stellar 49.6 percent from the field. Also worth noting has been the rock-solid play of center Al Horford.
In a league filled with bright, young talents at point guard, Teague seems to get overlooked more times than not. That won't be the case if the Hawks start to make some noise in the postseason.
It's a good thing the New York Knicks were firing on all cylinders earlier this season, because they've slowed down considerably after starting the season 21-9.
Throughout the months of January and February, the Knicks went a combined 13-11, averaging just 98.5 points per game throughout the long winter slog. That's down from the 101.9 points per game they posted during the fruitful month of December.
Last Sunday's 99-93 loss to the Miami Heat crystallized the Knicks' problems as of late. They shot just 27.6 percent from downtown while allowing the defending champs to knock down 40 percent of their looks from beyond the arc.
The Knicks' inability to convert from deep, coupled with their struggles defending the perimeter, may ultimately doom them if they're matched up against a defensively superior opponent in the playoffs.
The Indiana Pacers are well on their way to capturing their first division title since the 2003-04 season, when they finished with a league-best record of 61-21.
When watching the Pacers, it's clear that this is a team built for the grit and grind of the postseason. Head coach Frank Vogel has conditioned his team to give it their all on each and every defensive possession, and it's quite evident that the team has heeded his words.
According to TeamRankings, the Pacers rank fifth in the NBA in opponent scoring margin, with a mark of minus-4.3.
In addition, the Pacers rank first in the NBA in opponent field-goal percentage. The opposition has converted on a lowly 41.5 percent of their looks against Indiana this season.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat weren't able to snag the Eastern Conference's best record during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, but they're well on their way to grabbing that regular-season title in 2012-13.
The Heat have won 15 straight, stifling opponents with tight defense and remarkable ball movement that has the team looking exceptionally fresh.
Should the Heat crack the 60-win mark, it would be the franchise's first time doing so since they finished 61-21 under Pat Riley in 1996-97.
From underwhelming performances to relocation drama, the 2012-13 season hasn't been kind to the Sacramento Kings.
While keeping the team in its rightful place appears to be the proximate goal of the franchise at the moment, it's hard to ignore just how bad the Kings defense has been this season.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Kings rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating (111.7), and they're allowing a league-high 104.9 points per game.
Couple those displeasing numbers with the fact that the Kings are only able to muster 104.9 points per 100 possessions, and it's clear that this team is in need of a facelift.
Here's how you know things have gotten bad: The Phoenix Suns' throwback jerseys are receiving more hype than the players wearing them.
The Suns have yet to record more wins than losses in a given month this season, with their latest set of failures coming in the month of February, when the team went 4-9.
However, the Suns did cap off the month with an impressive double-overtime victory over the San Antonio Spurs, snapping their opponent's 18-game home win streak.
The fact that they were donning their throwbacks may have had something to do with it.
The New Orleans Hornets haven't been been able to muster much consistency on either end of the floor (offensive and defensive ratings of 14th and 27th, respectively, per Basketball-Reference), but the team has plenty to look forward to in the near future.
Led by the young trio of Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Greivis Vasquez, the Hornets have a diverse core to build around. It will only improve with a second consecutive high lottery selection this summer.
Head coach Monty Williams should only further the Hornets' development, establishing them as a playoff contender in the years to come.
Considered a dark horse entering the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have seen their playoff hopes fade as a slew of injuries has decimated the team's chemistry.
Kevin Love has only appeared in 18 games this season due to various hand injuries, leaving the Timberwolves with no true stretch 4 to help open up the offense.
Minnesota has also struggled mightily when it comes to shooting the three. It ranks last in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, converting on an embarrassing 29.7 percent of its shots from beyond the arc, per TeamRankings.
Just to reinforce that point, J.J. Barea leads the team in three-point shooting. He's hitting on 34.1 percent of his looks from deep, according to Basketball-Reference.
Maybe it's just me, but this season just doesn't feel the same when Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks aren't in the thick of the playoff chase.
Nowitzki has had quite a poor year by his standards, averaging just 15.8 points per game on 43.7 percent shooting from the field. However, one silver lining is that Nowitzki is shooting 41 percent from three, the third-best mark of his entire career.
Picking up the slack for the German sharpshooter is O.J. Mayo, who has put on quite the show playing on a one-year deal.
Mayo is shooting career bests from the field (46.1 percent) and three (41.5 percent), posting an offensive rating of 109, per Basketball-Reference.
Unfortunately for Dallas, the team's stable offense has been neutralized by an equally unstable defense. The Mavericks allow 102.6 points per game, the fourth-worst mark in the NBA.
Despite possessing the league's likely Rookie of the Year winner in point guard Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers find themselves staring at another disappointing regular season.
This year marks the second consecutive season in which the Blazers will miss the playoffs, which doesn't come as much of a surprise considering the team's bench has been nonexistent.
The Blazers bench averages 17 points per game, which ranks last in the NBA, according to HoopsStats.
Although they recently added nice depth at point guard in the form of Eric Maynor, the Blazers simply don't have the sort of roster that's built to compete with the Western Conference's elite.
Perhaps a summer of retooling will put the Blazers in better position to contend in 2013-14.
The Utah Jazz currently sit two games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers for the Western Conference's final playoff spot, as Mike D'Antoni's bunch is slowly but surely piecing things together at just the right time.
Although the Jazz possess a superior defense to both the Lakers and Houston Rockets, their offense (98.7 points per game) isn't on par with those of L.A. (102.3 points per game) and Houston (107 points per game).
Coming off of a month in which they went 6-6, the Jazz face a brutal stretch in March when they face the Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Rockets and New York Knicks (twice) in the span of two weeks.
With the Jazz primed to falter while the Lakers find themselves trending upward, it's beginning to look like Ty Corbin's bunch could be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
As things currently stand, the Los Angeles Lakers possess a 52.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to John Hollinger's playoff odds.
While the Utah Jazz possess odds that are roughly five percentage points greater, it's hard to deny the Lakers' rapidly increasing legitimacy.
After a 5-11 January, the Lakers bounced back in February, playing their best basketball of the season en route to a record of 9-4.
With four of their next eight games against lottery-bound teams (New Orleans, Toronto, Orlando and Sacramento), the Lakers appear to be in good shape heading into the homestretch.
One interesting statistic to note: While you wouldn't necessarily infer it from watching them on a nightly basis, the Lakers are actually playing at the league's third-fastest pace this season (94.8), according to Basketball-Reference.
Perhaps Mike D'Antoni's system is working out more than we give it credit for.
Despite their 29th-ranked scoring defense, John Hollinger's playoff odds suggest that not only will the Houston Rockets make the playoffs with ease (96.8 percent probability), but they will also overtake the Golden State Warriors for the Western Conference's sixth seed.
After shuffling their depth a bit at the trade deadline, the Rockets now boast a new and improved starting lineup, with Donatas Motiejunas slotted as the team's new starting power forward.
And so far, all of the moves the Rockets have made appear to be paying off.
According to Basketball-Reference, the five-man unit consisting of Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Motiejunas and Omer Asik is a staggering plus-40.9 in the plus/minus. They're also out-rebounding opponents by an impressive 8.6 boards per game.
Remember when Stephen Curry dropped 54 points on the New York Knicks in a stunning display of offensive talent, and the Golden State Warriors still lost the game?
That result should have come as no surprise considering the team's putrid defensive performances in February. Mark Jackson's bunch allowed a shocking 109.4 points per game over a 12-game stretch (4-8 record overall).
Luckily for the Warriors, 15 of their remaining 21 games will be at home, with the team currently in the midst of a seven-game homestand.
So far this season, the Warriors are 19-7 at home, a mark that's far superior to the 15-20 record they've posted in road games.
In order to solidify their first playoff appearance since 2006-07, the Warriors will need to tighten up their defense and finish the season with a flurry of wins.
Only three teams have lost three games or fewer at home this season: the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets have won nearly 90 percent of their games played at high altitude. They've come to be respected as one of the NBA's elite offenses, scoring 105.5 points per game, the third-best mark in the NBA.
Fortunately for the Nuggets, 11 of their remaining 20 games will be within the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center.
Whether they can surpass the Grizzlies and capture home-court advantage in the first round or not will undoubtedly come down to the last few games of the season. As of now, we'll give the edge to a more consistent Memphis squad.
The Memphis Grizzlies dealt Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors at the tail end of January in a move that many saw as the beginning of the end for a small-market wonder that had been surprisingly competitive over the past few years.
But guess what? The Grizzlies flipped the script on prognosticators, thriving to the tune of a 9-2 record in February, a month in which they allowed opponents to score a measly 88 points per game, according to Basketball-Reference.
Thanks to their performances throughout February, the Grizzlies now possess the league's best scoring defense, allowing just 89.5 points per game.
Should the Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets ultimately finish fourth and fifth in some order, we will be in for a first-round series that pits contrasting styles against each another.
Despite losing a 108-104 nail-biter to the Oklahoma City Thunder last Sunday, the Los Angeles Clippers find themselves just one-and-a-half games behind their rivals for the second seed out West.
Aside from Chris Paul, the Clippers' most significant contributor moving forward will be Blake Griffin, who has absolutely lit it up since the All-Star break.
Shooting 54.6 percent on the season, Griffin has surpassed that total in a small sample size since the break. He's buried a team-high 59.5 percent of his looks en route to a team-high 18.8 points per game (tied with Jamal Crawford in that span).
The fact that Griffin hasn't peaked yet and his game is already this refined is quite scary.
If you can't get a lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder early, then forget about it.
Scott Brooks has his team looking sharp and focused heading into the homestretch. They've been simply torching opponents with their ferocious offense that's averaging 106.7 points per game.
Additionally, according to Basketball-Reference, the Thunder are scoring 112.8 points per 100 possessions, the highest mark in the league.
Another encouraging sign for the Thunder is that their defensive rating is down to 102.9 (eighth in the NBA) from a mark of 103.2 a year ago, per Basketball-Reference. That has them looking like a team with very few, if any, flaws.
Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs will be without point guard Tony Parker for the foreseeable future, but they should still have no problem wrapping up home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.
The Spurs' depth is proving to be their greatest asset, with the team able to make a seamless transition to life with Cory Joseph, Patty Mills and Gary Neal running the point.
Although the Oklahoma City Thunder will be breathing down their necks for the remainder of the season, the Spurs won't get complacent enough to let a three-game edge slip away.