Handicapping All 30 NBA Teams' Playoff Chances as They Head Down the Stretch

Brendan Bowers@@BowersCLEContributor IIMarch 4, 2013

Handicapping All 30 NBA Teams' Playoff Chances as They Head Down the Stretch

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    In handicapping all 30 NBA teams' playoff chances as we head down the final stretch, the potential for major moves within the standings remains in each conference.

    While there are certainly a collection of teams locked into playoff positions at this point—and those similarly locked out—a handful of playoff bubble teams will certainly make this last 30 percent of the 2012-13 regular season compelling.

    From the Los Angeles Lakers to the Golden State Warriors, the fiercest battles for playoff berths reside in the Western Conference.

    While there is less of chance in the Eastern Conference for a team to move past those currently occupying the final playoff spots, there is still plenty of room for maneuvering within the middle seeds.

    Each team is listed according to its projected finish as the month of March begins and the chances it has at advancing to the postseason.

Eastern Conference, Orlando Magic: Out

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    Final Projection: No. 15

    Current Record: 16-44

    Current Seed: No. 14 

    The deal that sent J.J Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks was the white flag raised for the Orlando Magic this season.

    Any fleeting hope to simply win on a semi-regular basis was gone at that point for the team, which saw its franchise leave this summer when Dwight Howard joined the Los Angeles Lakers.

    As a result of all that, the Magic have now dropped three straight games and eight of their last 10.

    Beno Udrih, though, has shown flashes of becoming a contributor moving forward since his arrival, and Arron Afflalo continues to score at a 16.7 points-per-game clip.

Eastern Conference, Charlotte Bobcats: Out

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    Final Projection: No. 14

    Current Record: 13-46

    Current Seed: No. 15 

    The Charlotte Bobcats were 7-5 overall at one point this season.

    It was a glorious time that I hope everyone had an opportunity to celebrate while it lasted.

    Shortly after that, however, they were emphatically eliminated from the postseason and remain as such with less than 30 percent of the games remaining.

    Kemba Walker has been a bright spot, however, scoring 17.4 points on the year, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has proved to be worth the first-round investment as well.

    But while I expect this team to move out of the conference cellar and past the Orlando Magic, everything else in Charlotte has left little to be excited about this year. 

Eastern Conference, Washington Wizards: Out

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    Final Projection: No. 13

    Current Record: 19-39

    Current Seed: No. 13 

    The Washington Wizards look like a team who would've had a great chance for postseason play this year if John Wall had been healthy for the duration.

    Since Wall's returned to the lineup, he's averaged 13.9 points and 7.3 assists in 25 games.

    He's helped this Wizards team win six of their last 10 games in the process too while also elevating the play of rookie Bradley Beal.

    Beal is averaging 14.2 points as his rookie season winds down, and the future looks bright in the nation's capital because of those two guards. 

Eastern Conference, Cleveland Cavaliers: Out

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    Final Projection: No. 12

    Current Record: 20-39

    Current Seed: No. 12

    Dion Waiters was just named the NBA's Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month on the strength of 15.8 points on 51.4 percent shooting from the field in February.

    Kyrie Irving made his All-Star debut last month as well, and Tristan Thompson continues to improve as his second NBA season continues.

    With the additions of Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington, the Cavaliers now have a bench capable of competing on a nightly basis and have won five of their last 10 because of all that.

    While they are playing better basketball now than they did at the start of the year, expect this Cavaliers team to still finish no higher than 12 in the Eastern Conference. 

Eastern Conference, Detroit Pistons: Out

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    Final Projection: No. 11

    Current Record: 23-39

    Current Seed: No. 11 

    We are far enough through the season to seal the fate of the Detroit Pistons' playoff chances this year.

    They aren't making it.

    At the same time, though, we've also played enough games to say that this Pistons team is heading in the right direction.

    Equipped with Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight, more wins than losses appear on the horizon for years to come in Detroit.

    There won't be too much more winning this season in the meantime, though. 

Eastern Conference, Philadelphia 76ers: Bubble

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    Final Projection: No. 10

    Current Record: 23-35

    Current Seed: No. 9

    Averaging 19.1 points and 8.1 assists, Jrue Holiday has taken this Philadelphia 76ers team as far as anyone could've asked him to this season.

    The fact that help from Andrew Bynum has yet to arrive in 2012-13 has been ultimately too much to overcome.

    While the Sixers are mathematically still on the playoff bubble—6.5 games out of eighth place—they've dropped eight of their last 10 games and essentially have given back any chance they had last month for postseason play.

Eastern Conference, Toronto Raptors: Bubble

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    Final Projection: No. 9

    Current Record: 23-37

    Current Seed: No. 10 

    Rudy Gay instantly improved the Toronto Raptors as soon as he stepped onto the floor following his trade from the Memphis Grizzlies.

    That late push the Raptors hoped to make, however, took a major hit recently, as they've dropped their last four games heading into Monday.

    Those losses included one to the Cleveland Cavaliers, currently owners of the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. 

    To make matters worse, Gay missed the Raptors' last game with an undisclosed injury after averaging 20.4 points for Toronto during the month of February.

Eastern Conference, Milwaukee Bucks: Bubble

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    Final Projection: No. 8

    Current Record: 29-28

    Current Seed: No. 8 

    With Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, the Milwaukee Bucks backcourt was already crowded before J.J. Redick was acquired last month at the trade deadline.

    Despite questions of whether enough basketballs exist for those three guards, it appears Milwaukee ultimately increased its playoff chances in making this move. 

    Redick has averaged 15 points off the bench in four games for the Bucks so far, and they've won their last three.

    Although defense and rebounding remains a concern, the Bucks backcourt will certainly be more difficult to match up with in the postseason the more this new unit is able to gel down the stretch.

Eastern Conference, Boston Celtics: Bubble

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    Final Projection: No. 7

    Current Record: 31-27

    Current Seed: No. 7 

    The Boston Celtics have responded to the adversity of losing Rajon Rondo to a season-ending ACL injury the way you'd expect a team led by Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to do.

    While the Celtics are technically on the bubble, the only real question will be whether they finish with the seventh or eighth seed come playoff time.

    On the strength of 33.5 points combined from Garnett and Pierce on a nightly basis, I expect the Celtics to hold off the Milwaukee Bucks as we come down the final stretch of the season and finish the year where they're currently slotted. 

Eastern Conference, Brooklyn Nets: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 6

    Current Record: 34-26

    Current Seed: No. 6 

    In a season that saw their head coach, Avery Johnson, fired in December, the Brooklyn Nets will host a playoff game in their new arena sooner rather than later. 

    Despite dropping five of their last 10 games, the Nets have done enough to lock up a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference this year. 

    While they are only 3.5 games ahead of the eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks at the moment, they are also 10 full games ahead of the ninth-place Philadelphia 76ers.

    Deron Williams posted a more Williams-like month of February too, averaging 18.7 points and 7.1 assists, and looks ready to finish this season much stronger than he started it. 

Eastern Conference, Atlanta Hawks: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 5

    Current Record: 33-25

    Current Seed: No. 4 

    Josh Smith has averaged 17.2 points for the Atlanta Hawks this season despite the widespread speculation that he could have been moved at the deadline.

    While Smith's future has made major headlines over the last couple months, Al Horford has been putting in quality work on the interior for the Hawks as well.

    Horford currently ranks third among all centers in scoring at 17.3 points per game.

    He's also averaging 8.7 rebounds per game and will create issues on the interior for whoever Atlanta matches up with in the postseason.

Eastern Conference, Chicago Bulls: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 4

    Current Record: 34-26

    Current Seed: No. 5 

    All-Stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng will lead the Chicago Bulls into the Eastern Conference playoffs this season regardless of what Derrick Rose's return ultimately means down the stretch.

    While a healthy Rose could make this team a legitimate contender in the East, the Bulls have used defense and rebounding in the meantime to maximize their chances this summer.

    The Bulls currently rank fourth in defensive efficiency through Sunday at 98.6 and sixth with a rebounding rate of 51.5. 

    The 11.4 rebounds that Noah has hauled down on a nightly basis are good for fourth in the NBA as well. 

Eastern Conference, Indiana Pacers: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 3

    Current Record: 38-22

    Current Seed: No. 2 

    The Indiana Pacers have defended their way to a top seed in the Eastern Conference this season. 

    While his offensive numbers have been down, Roy Hibbert is still helping to anchor a defensive attack on the interior that has led to a league-best defensive efficiency rating of 95.5 through Sunday.

    In addition to the efforts of the All-Star Paul George at 17.6 points per game, David West has also posted a monster season for the Pacers that's gone largely under-appreciated.

    As Danny Granger works his way back into playing shape, West continues to lead this balanced attack in Indiana with 17.7 points to go along with 7.6 rebounds.

Eastern Conference, New York Knicks: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 2

    Current Record: 35-21

    Current Seed: No. 3

    As a result of only going 4-6 in their last 10 games, there's a growing concern about how good the New York Knicks actually are this year.

    That dialogue, however, is indicative of how much the Knicks have raised expectations throughout the 2012-13 season. 

    Following the departure of Jeremy Lin, and in their first full season under Mike Woodson, the Knicks weren't supposed to be in a conversation about actually winning their conference this season.

    On the strength of Carmelo Anthony's league-leading 28.6 points per game, the Knicks are currently in that discussion.

    While I don't expect them to actually overtake the No. 1 spot by season's end, I predict the Knicks will correct their recent issues and finish with the second seed.

Eastern Conference, Miami Heat: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 1

    Current Record: 43-14

    Current Seed: No. 1 

    LeBron James is playing the best basketball of his life right now. Free from the burden of never having won an NBA championship, James is completely unstoppable this year.

    The Heat have won 14 straight games through Sunday as a result, and James is the league's single most dominant force as we head down the final stretch of the 2012-13 campaign. 

    He shot a staggering 64.1 percent from the field during the month of February and most likely locked up his fourth MVP in the process.

    In the meantime, the first-place Miami Heat remain the standard by which every other team in the Eastern Conference is measured.

Western Conference, Sacramento Kings: Out

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    Final Projection: No. 15

    Current Record: 21-40

    Current Seed: No. 15 

    The Sacramento Kings are currently in last place in the Western Conference and will most likely finish their tumultuous season in that position.

    Reports of an impending move have swirled around this team all year, and inconsistent play has been the on-court result.

    Despite a suspension, DeMarcus Cousins has been a bright spot from a production standpoint, averaging a team-high 17.2 points and 9.9 rebounds as we head down the final stretch. 

Western Conference, Phoenix Suns: Out

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    Final Projection: No. 14

    Current Record: 21-39

    Current Seed: No. 13

    The Phoenix Suns are surging, having won their last three, including a win over the San Antonio Spurs along the way.

    Despite playing only 29 minutes after injuring his back in their last game out, Goran Dragic scored 19 points to help his team to a 92-87 win over the Atlanta Hawks.

    On the season, Dragic has averaged 14.2 points and 6.9 assists in replacing Steve Nash at point guard for the Suns, but he hasn't had much help this year. 

Western Conference, Minnesota Timberwolves: Out

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    Final Projection: No. 13

    Current Record: 20-36

    Current Seed: No. 12

    The Minnesota Timberwolves were essentially eliminated from the postseason following the news of Kevin Love's injury on January 3.

    Despite Ricky Rubio's return to the lineup from an ACL injury suffered last year, the loss of Love has been too much for this young Timberwolves team to withstand. 

    Rubio averaged 12.8 points and 9.5 assists in February, however, which bodes well moving forward for a team that could be competing for a playoff spot as soon as next year if all of its key parts can remain healthy. 

Western Conference, New Orleans Hornets: Out

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    Final Projection: No. 12

    Current Record: 21-39

    Current Seed: No. 14

    It's been a disappointing season filled with injuries for the New Orleans Hornets in 2012-13.

    After scoring in double figures for five straight games during the month of February, Anthony Davis has missed the last two with a shoulder injury.

    Currently listed as day-to-day, according to John Reid of the Times-Picayune, a strong finish to his rookie season could provide some reason for hope heading into next year.

    In 45 games, Davis has averaged 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds for a Hornets team that has now lost six of their last 10 through Sunday.

Western Conference, Dallas Mavericks: Bubble

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    Final Projection: No. 11

    Current Record: 26-33

    Current Seed: No. 11

    Despite a record below .500, the Dallas Mavericks are only six games back of the eighth spot in the Western Conference with 23 games to play in the regular season. Technically, they're on the bubble.

    Dirk Nowitzki has returned to average a respectable 15.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in 30 games, but it's too little too late for the Mavericks.

    They would need a lot of teams to do a lot of losing ahead of them in order to sneak their way into the 2012-13 postseason, and that's not something we should expect at this point. 

Western Conference, Portland Trail Blazers: Bubble

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    Final Projection: No. 10

    Current Record: 27-31

    Current Seed: No. 10

    The Portland Trail Blazers are a second unit away from becoming a playoff team.

    Led by LaMarcus Aldridge's 20.7 points per night, Portland's starting five has averaged 82.6 points collectively this season.

    Unfortunately for the Rip City faithful, however, the next leading scorer off the bench after that has been Meyers Leonard at only 4.5 per game.

    That lack of bench support has prevented Portland from earning a playoff berth thus far and will inevitably keep it from earning one as the regular season concludes, even though it's trailing the Houston Rockets by only 4.5 games.

Western Conference, Utah Jazz: Bubble

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    Final Projection: No. 9

    Current Record: 32-27

    Current Seed: No. 7

    The Utah Jazz have a chance to finish this regular season as high as sixth and as low as ninth in the Western Conference.

    Despite the decision not to trade Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap at the deadline last month in hopes to make a run in the postseason, expect the Jazz to be the odd team out when the playoffs begin.

    Over the last 10 games, Utah has gone just 5-5 while even dropping one to the bottom-feeding Sacramento Kings along the way.

    Those aren't the types of efforts that improve a team's playoff chances, nor are the nagging injuries to Jefferson and Millsap.

Western Conference, Los Angeles Lakers: Bubble

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    Final Projection: No. 8

    Current Record: 30-30

    Current Seed: No. 9 

    The Los Angeles Lakers have won seven of their last 10 games and are now playing .500 basketball as the final push towards the postseason begins.

    Kobe Bryant is the NBA's third-leading scorer at 27.3 points per game, while Dwight Howard is quietly leading the league in rebounding at 12 boards per contest as well.

    While it took much longer than most people expected, the Lakers are now playing like a team destined for the 2012-13 postseason. 

    The emergence of Steve Nash—who averaged 12.8 points and 6.2 assists in the month of February—has been especially critical in assembling this recent surge.

    Despite trailing the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets by 2.5 games through Sunday, I expect this Lakers roll to continue right into the Western Conference's final playoff spot by the conclusion of the regular season. 

Western Conference, Houston Rockets: Bubble

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    Final Projection: No. 7

    Current Record: 33-28

    Current Seed: No. 8

    Fueled by James Harden's 26.2 points per night, the Houston Rockets are leading the NBA in scoring this season at 107. points collectively through Sunday.

    Unfortunately for Rockets fans, however, they are also giving up the second-most points per game at 103.7, which has played this team squarely onto the playoff bubble. 

    The Rockets currently own the eighth seed in the Western Conference along with a 2.5-game lead over the ninth-place Los Angeles Lakers. 

    They will be in a four-team battle for three playoff spots heading down the final stretch of the season—along with the Lakers, Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors—but I expect the Rockets to score enough points to secure one of those spots by the time these playoff begin. 

Western Conference, Golden State Warriors: Bubble

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    Final Projection: No. 6

    Current Record: 33-27

    Current Seed: No. 6

    I have appreciated the Golden State Warriors' resilient effort all season long.

    I really don't want to put them on the playoff bubble at this point because of all that, but unfortunately for Warriors fans, that's where this team technically sits as March gets underway. 

    Not even 54 points from Stephen Curry could help avoid the loss to the New York Knicks this past Wednesday, and Golden State has now dropped seven of its last 10 overall.

    The Warriors have also lost four straight, and there's certainly plenty of reasons to be worried in the Bay Area at this point.

    In saying as much, however, I still believe the Warriors will right the ship and close this season out with the sixth seed in the Western Conference. They've been too good for too long this year to give all that back now.

Western Conference, Denver Nuggets: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 5

    Current Record: 38-22

    Current Seed: No. 5 

    Ty Lawson's last-second jumper to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday highlighted a recent stretch that has seen the Denver Nuggets win four straight games heading into week.

    That effort from Lawson comes after a month of February in which he averaged 23.3 points and 8.4 assists in 12 games for the Nuggets.

    He has helped his team lock up a playoff spot as we head down the final stretch of the season despite Denver's slow start to the 2012-13 campaign.

    Beyond simply solidifying their playoff position at this point, it appears unlikely the Nuggets will finish the regular season any lower than fifth in the Western Conference.

Western Conference, Memphis Grizzlies: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 4

    Current Record: 39-19

    Current Seed: No. 4 

    The Memphis Grizzlies have gone 9-1 since February 8 and have shown no signs of slowing down following the trade that sent leading scorer Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors in late January.

    Austin Daye and Tayshaun Prince have combined to score 14.7 points since coming over in the three-team deal from the Detroit Pistons, while Zach Randolph continues to lead the playoff charge for the Grizzlies.

    At 11.6 rebounds per night, Randolph is the NBA's second-leading rebounder through Sunday. He is scoring 15.7 points to go along with his work on the glass, while posting 35 double-doubles on the year in the process.

    Currently listed as day-to-day with an ankle injury, the healthier Randolph is come playoff time, the better Memphis' chances become at making serious noise in the postseason.

Western Conference, Los Angeles Clippers: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 3

    Current Record: 43-19

    Current Seed: No. 3

    We've arrived at a moment in NBA history when the Los Angeles Clippers are more than simply a lock for postseason play.

    The Clippers appear poised not only to return to the playoffs this season, but also to hold on to their No. 3 seed in the Western Conference down the stretch and begin postseason play with home-court advantage.

    Led by the league's preeminent point guard in Chris Paul, the Clippers continue to feature a lineup as deep as any in the NBA.

    Jamal Crawford's 17 points per game off the bench is the highest total of any reserve this season. Blake Griffin is playing the best basketball of his life this year as well, and the Clippers are a team that nobody wants to see come playoff time.

Western Conference, San Antonio Spurs: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 2

    Current Record: 47-14

    Current Seed: No. 1

    An MRI on Tony Parker's left ankle recently confirmed a grade two sprain, according to a news release from the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday.

    This news comes after a month of February where Parker averaged 26.1 points, 8.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds in nine games.

    After LeBron James, Parker had been playing the best basketball in the NBA over this last month of the season, and his presence will be sorely missed.

    With Parker currently slated to return on March 30, expect his injury to be too much for his Spurs to withstand in their fight to hold on to the Western Conference's best record down the stretch.

Western Conference, Oklahoma City Thunder: Lock

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    Final Projection: No. 1

    Current Record: 43-16

    Current Seed: No. 2

    Oklahoma City Thunder teammates Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant each rank among the top six scorers in the NBA through Sunday.

    At a combined average of 52 points per game, the All-Star tandem from OKC represents the highest scoring duo in the league this season.

    Their Thunder squad currently ranks second in the NBA at 106.7 points per night collectively to go along with an offensive efficiency rating of 110.4, which also ranks second. 

    While they're three games out of first place at the moment, expect the Thunder to capitalize on that offensive attack—along with Tony Parker's injury—and re-claim the Western Conference's best record as we look ahead to the end of the season.