The month of March is well underway, which means the NBA is fast approaching the final days before regular-season grades are due.
The overall marks haven't shifted that much since the end of February, though that doesn't mean the league has exactly stood still. In the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, while the middle of the playoff picture remains as muddled as ever, with the Brooklyn Nets, the Atlanta Hawks, the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics all neck-and-neck.
Out West, the San Antonio Spurs are vulnerable to comeuppance now that Tony Parker is out with an ankle injury, though the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies are having trouble enough jockeying for position among one another.
And that's to say nothing of the Los Angeles Lakers' push for a postseason spot or the upcoming rush amongst bottom-feeders to tank for positioning in the 2013 NBA draft lottery.
So who's passing with flying colors? Who's failing? And who's finally hitting the books to get their marks up to speed?
Read on to find out!
Offensive Efficiency: 97.2 (29th)
Defensive Efficiency: 108.9 (30th)
The end of the regular season can't come soon enough for the Charlotte Bobcats. They've lost their last four games by an average of 26 points per outing. That string includes a 30-point drubbing opposite the Utah Jazz, who were without Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, and a 36-point shellacking at the hands of the Sacramento Kings.
THE SACRAMENTO KINGS!!!
At the very least, the 'Cats still have a ways to go before they can even sniff last season's futility. Though, at this rate, they'll finish 2012-13 with another entry among the NBA's 10 worst seasons as measured by margin of victory (or, rather, defeat).
Offensive Efficiency: 99.8 (24th)
Defensive Efficiency: 106.4 (26th)
Strange as it may seem, the Orlando Magic are showing signs of life now that the trade deadline is two weeks past, along with J.J. Redick's memory. In the last week alone, they've beaten the New Orleans Hornets and gone toe-to-toe with the Houston Rockets and the Miami Heat.
Better yet, it looks like at least one of the players the Magic plucked from the Milwaukee Bucks in the Redick deal has some serious potential. In seven games since joining Orlando, Tobias Harris is averaging 16.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.9 combined blocks and steals in 28.7 minutes per game—all off the bench.
Offensive Efficiency: 96.0 (30th)
Defensive Efficiency: 99.7 (6th)
John Wall has yet to have the galvanizing effect on the Wizards offense that many anticipated he would, hence their dead-last ranking in offensive efficiency.
But, to his credit, Wall showed some signs of life this past week. He scored six straight points in crunch time to propel Washington to a 90-87 win over the Sixers and poured in 19 points and seven assists in a five-point loss to the Timberwolves.
If nothing else, Wall's speed and quick hands have further strengthened the Wizards' already-stout defense, which continues to climb deeper and deeper into the NBA's top 10.
Offensive Efficiency: 101.6 (18th)
Defensive Efficiency: 108.8 (29th)
Aside from a 28-point spanking at the hands of the Spurs (in which Tony Parker succumbed to an ankle injury, by the way), the Kings have looked like a competitive basketball outfit of late. Aside from beating up the Bobcats, which is practically par for the course these days, Sacramento has put jolts into the Nuggets and the Warriors—the latter in Oakland, no less.
DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans seem to have fallen off a cliff, though Marcus Thornton has done plenty to catch them from his spot off the bench. The high-scoring guard had been averaging 26.2 points per game in his last five contests prior to his nine-point dud against Golden State.
Offensive Efficiency: 102.7 (13th)
Defensive Efficiency: 107.0 (28th)
The Hornets' 108-102 loss to the Lakers on March 6 tells you just about everything you need to know about this team.
On the one hand, New Orleans sports a wealth of tantalizing talent in its burgeoning core, which includes Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Greivis Vasquez (a prime candidate for Most Improved Player) and Ryan Anderson (in the running for Sixth Man of the Year).
On the other hand, they're still incredibly young and inexperienced and have struggled mightily to execute on the defensive end. As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently noted, head coach Monty Williams has yet to find a frontcourt combination—between Davis, Anderson and Robin Lopez—that's been effective on both ends of the floor.
Hence, the Hornets might have the raw talent to build up a 25-point lead on a team like the Lakers, but their youth leaves them vulnerable to the sorts of lapses and miscues that can cause such an advantage to collapse.
In other words, New Orleans will have a good basketball team in due time. The city, though, will probably have to wait 'til they're called the Pelicans.
Offensive Efficiency: 97.8 (28th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.4 (22nd)
The Suns had such a good thing going, didn't they? They'd won three games in a row for just the second time all season, the last two of which came at the expense of the Spurs and the Hawks.
And then, it all came undone in a 98-71 loss to the Toronto Raptors. Phoenix turned the ball over a staggering 29 times—their most ever at the U.S. Airways Center—and would've set a new franchise low for points scored in a game if not for a late three by Marcus Morris.
In truth, the Suns probably aren't as bad as their 27-point defeat to Toronto would suggest, though they're clearly nowhere as good as they looked at times during the preceding streak.
Offensive Efficiency: 102.0 (17th)
Defensive Efficiency: 106.9 (27th)
Just in case anyone forgot, Kyrie Irving is pretty frickin' great and showed as much (once again) in a 104-101 win for the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Utah Jazz.
The 20-year-old phenom scored 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 straight before setting up Wayne Ellington for what amounted to the winning shot.
Now, if only the Cavs could have Kyrie and Dion Waiters healthy at the same time, they might just make some serious noise in the Eastern Conference.
Offensive Efficiency: 99.4 (26th)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.7 (14th)
To characterize the Timberwolves' 2012-13 season as a disappointment might just be the understatement of the century in the NBA. They've fallen to within two-and-a-half games of the cellar of the Western Conference, due in no small part to an ongoing stretch that's seen them lose 17 of 21 games.
Moreover, Minny's only wins in that time have come against the Hornets, the Cavs, the Sixers and the Wizards—not exactly a Murderers Row of opponents.
On the bright side, Ricky Rubio had himself quite a game during that win over Washington. All told, Rubio tallied 15 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and six steals with just three turnovers, and he looked more like Rookie Ricky than he has all season.
Albeit not always in the best way. Rubio shot just 4-of-15 from the floor to drop his field-goal percentage during the current campaign to .343.
Offensive Efficiency: 100.0 (23rd)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.3 (21st)
So much for DEEETROOOOIT BASKETBAAAALLLL. The Pistons have dropped their last three since eking out a "W" against the woeful Wizards on Feb. 27.
Detroit nearly upended New Orleans in the following game, thanks to outstanding performances from Greg Monroe (27 points, 10 rebounds, three assists) and Jose Calderon (seven points, 11 assists).
But the Pistons have since been rolled by the Spurs and the Knicks, who were playing without their respective MVPs (i.e. Tony Parker and Carmelo Anthony). Detroit will need all help it can get as it prepares to leave the Motor City for a four-game Western Conference road swing.
Offensive Efficiency: 98.5 (27th)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.5 (12th)
The 76ers finally brought their seven-game skid to a close, by way of a 104-97 win over the similarly slipping Warriors.
Not that the success lasted all that long. Philly has dropped three games since then, including a three-point squeaker to the Wizards.
As a result, the Sixers now find themselves a full seven-and-a-half games back of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
And if you're wondering why Doug Collins is still employed in the City of Brotherly Love, just ask Sixers CEO Adam Aaron, who apparently has a man-crush of some sort on Dougie Not-So-Fresh.
Offensive Efficiency: 103.3 (11th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.4 (22nd)
The Raptors can thank the Suns for practically rescuing them from a late-season free fall. Toronto had lost five in a row before stumbling into Phoenix, where the Suns were undone by 28 tortuous turnovers and an abysmal 37.8 percent shooting from the field.
Not that the Raps were all that much better. They gave the ball away 21 times themselves.
But a win's a win, and a 27-point win is, well, even better.
Offensive Efficiency: 102.7 (13th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.2 (20th)
The Dallas Mavericks' slim playoff hopes have all but evaporated into the ether, though at least Dirk Nowitzki and Co. still have a legitimate shot at finishing with a record of .500 or better while playing spoiler in the Western Conference.
They've won two of their last three, including a revenge victory against the Houston Rockets, and they have three winnable road games against the Pistons, T-Wolves and Bucks upcoming.
Of course, that's small consolation for a team that hasn't missed the postseason since the Bill Clinton administration. At least Mavs fans can take comfort in seeing some vintage Dirk during the stretch run, now that the giant German is rounding back into proper playing shape.
Offensive Efficiency: 102.5 (16th)
Defensive Efficiency: 105.3 (25th)
Nothing will lend hope to a team amidst a second-half fade quite like consecutive games against the Timberwolves and the Bobcats.
Just ask the Trail Blazers, who beat those two teams by an average of 16 points to make it three wins in four games following a seven-game skid.
The addition of Eric Maynor continues to be a boon to the Blazers' paper-thin bench. Once buried behind Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson in OKC, Maynor has gone on to post solid averages of 6.2 points and 5.0 assists in five games since arriving in Portland at the trade deadline.
Offensive Efficiency: 105.7 (8th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.9 (18th)
Sad Lakers fans and Lakers "haters" alike will look at their 108-102 win over the Hornets and see a team that should never have had to climb back from a 25-point deficit against an inferior opponent to begin with.
Which is certainly a valid point, though it ignores both Kobe Bryant's brilliance (42 points on 14-of-21 from the field, 12 assists, seven rebounds) and the value of each and every victory to L.A.'s late-season playoff push. The win drew the Lakers within a game-and-a-half of eighth-place Utah, two of seventh-place Houston and four of sixth-place Golden State.
The team put out an infographic breaking down the Lakers' path just to get into the postseason. But if the Warriors and the Jazz continue to fade and the Lakers rack up enough wins of their own, their season finale against the Rockets may well determine whether the basketball world will finally witness an all-L.A. playoff series in the first round, between the Lakers and the Clippers.
Offensive Efficiency: 100.4 (21st)
Defensive Efficiency: 101.4 (11th)
The Milwaukee Bucks had won four games in a row, with J.J. Redick averaging 15.3 points, to further solidify their standing in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Then, Redick laid an egg—three points on 1-of-5 shooting. Coincidentally, the Bucks lost that game, a 117-101 result against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Not that J.J. is the difference between Milwaukee winning and losing, though his production off the bench has clearly been a boon to the Bucks since they acquired him at the trade deadline.
Offensive Efficiency: 103.5 (10th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.1 (19th)
The Utah Jazz took plenty of flak (including some from yours truly) for hanging onto Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap at the trade deadline. Those two have battled injuries since, and as a result, the Jazz have dropped five of six to fall within a game-and-a-half of slipping out of the playoff picture out West entirely.
The news isn't all bad for the Jazz, though. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter have stepped up their respective games with Utah's top two bigs on the pine.
Favors is averaging 13.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game in his last four, while Kanter has posted a robust line of 19.3 points, 13 boards and one block in Utah's most recent three.
At the very least, then, the team's recent downturn has given the Jazz brass an opportunity to see what they have in their two young giants going forward.
Offensive Efficiency: 107.6 (4th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.9 (24th)
The Houston Rockets have done a marvelous job of positioning themselves for a solid seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Despite a 112-108 loss to the Mavs, the Rockets remain just two games back of the Warriors for the sixth seed.
Which makes a March 8 meeting between Houston and Golden State—the last of the season for these two teams—all the more important. A win for the Rockets would move them that much closer to the Warriors while also securing the season series between these two in Houston's favor.
Both of these squads would make for an entertaining first-round series opposite the Los Angeles Clippers, though the Rockets' penchant for fast-break play could give way to a thrilling Lob City dunkfest.
Offensive Efficiency: 100.4 (21st)
Defensive Efficiency: 99.3 (5th)
Speaking of teams making moves, the Boston Celtics may well wind up as a top-four team in the East, even without the services of Rajon Rondo. They've won four in a row and 13 of 17 since their All-Star point guard succumbed to a season-ending ACL tear.
Paul Pierce has done plenty to pick up the slack of late. In his last four games, "The Truth" is averaging 20.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists while knocking down 47.6 percent of his three-point attempts.
Asking fogies like Pierce and Kevin Garnett to carry such a heavy load is a dubious proposition for the C's, but at this point, they don't have much of a choice.
And if it yields home-court advantage in the postseason, then the added stress will have been well worth it.
Offensive Efficiency: 99.8 (24th)
Defensive Efficiency: 98.8 (4th)
Paging Derrick Rose! Paging Derrick Rose! The Chicago Bulls could really use you right about now.
Or any warm body, for that matter. They've now lost 10 of their last 16 games, including an 18-point blowout against the Tony Parker-less Spurs and a narrow defeat in a crucial contest against the Central Division-rival Pacers.
Joakim Noah's well on his way to no worse than a top-three finish in the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year balloting, though he can hardly make up for the Bulls' lack of scoring punch on the other end all by his lonesome.
Offensive Efficiency: 103.8 (9th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.4 (17th)
The Warriors can thank the schedule-makers at the league office for helping them stem the tide of a recent downturn. Golden State managed to stabilize itself with wins against the Raptors and the Kings and can look forward to finishing up its season with 14 of 20 games at home, where the Dubs are 20-7.
Not that playing at Oracle Arena at all guarantees that the rest of the campaign will be a cakewalk for the Warriors. They'll play five of their next six games against postseason-bound opponents, including two against the Rockets, who currently sit just two games back of Golden State in the Western Conference standings.
Offensive Efficiency: 102.6 (15th)
Defensive Efficiency: 101.3 (9th)
The Atlanta Hawks remain firmly entrenched in the Eastern Conference's "muddled middle." They're currently in fifth place, just a half-game back of the Brooklyn Nets, despite dropping the last three games of a recent Western Conference road swing.
Don't blame it on Al Horford, though. He's stuffed the stat sheet with 20.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks so far in the month of March.
Thereby reminding Hawks fans that there will, indeed, be basketball worth watching in Atlanta, even if Josh Smith bolts via free agency.
Offensive Efficiency: 103.2 (11th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.3 (16th)
Wherever the Brooklyn Nets wind up in the Eastern Conference hierarchy, don't expect them to make much noise come playoff time. Their point differential of plus-0.4 is easily the lowest of any of the East's top six seeds.
So far, the Nets have racked up a middling 6-7 record against those other five. That mark won't improve much unless Brooklyn gets steadier contributions from Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, who've been inconsistent at best as a backcourt tandem this season.
Offensive Efficiency: 100.8 (20th)
Defensive Efficiency: 95.5 (1st)
If not for Roy Hibbert's involvement in an altercation with David Lee and Jeff Green's late-game layup, the Indiana Pacers may well be in the midst of a nine-game winning streak. As it stands, the Pacers have done well enough to put themselves in a virtual tie with the Knicks for the second seed in Eastern Conference.
A March 10 meeting with the streaking Miami Heat will go a long way toward revealing Indy's ability to truly challenge for the title this spring. The Pacers have beaten the Heat twice already this season, punishing them with their size advantage up front and tremendous athleticism on the perimeter.
At this point, the Pacers aren't likely to catch Miami in the standings, now that they're eight games back. But Indy clearly isn't afraid of the defending champs and has the requisite horses to make LeBron James and Co. sing for their supper, and then some.
Offensive Efficiency: 107.9 (3rd)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.0 (15th)
The New York Knicks' latest loss to the Miami Heat was emblematic of the team's overall decline from its hot start to the season. The Knicks handled the Heat the first two times they met, but they were upended in the second half of their most recent meeting when Carmelo Anthony went cold and New York's defense couldn't handle the onslaught wrought by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
And now that Anthony has fallen victim to a knee injury, the Knicks' problems with health and age have returned to the fore. New York can survive sans 'Melo, as they nearly did in a one-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But come playoff time, the Knicks will be even more hard-pressed to push their way into the Eastern Conference Finals unless Anthony is fit and ready to produce.
Offensive Efficiency: 107.4 (6th)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.6 (13th)
The Denver Nuggets are going streaking! Again!
Their 107-92 annihilation of the Jamal Crawford-less Clippers was the Nuggets' seventh in a row, and it bumped their home record to a nearly impenetrable 27-3.
Which may well come into play in the stretch run toward the postseason. Denver has 11 more games to play at the Pepsi Center, and it may well be able to rely on home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs now that it's within striking distance of a top-four seed in the West.
Offensive Efficiency: 100.9 (19th)
Defensive Efficiency: 97.1 (2nd)
The successes of the post-Rudy Gay era continue to flood in for the Memphis Grizzlies. They ground their way to a double-digit comeback against the Portland Trail Blazers in their most recent outing to improve their record to 10-1 in their last 11 games.
The Grizz will have ample opportunity to pad their overall mark in the week to come before hitting the road for a string of tough tests against the Clippers, Nuggets and Jazz.
Offensive Efficiency: 106.7 (7th)
Defensive Efficiency: 100.2 (8th)
Never mind the Clippers' blowout loss in Denver on March 7. Jamal Crawford was out with a bum ankle, and the Nuggets have a habit of eviscerating any and every team that sets foot in the Pepsi Center.
Of course, every loss counts in the standings, especially now that the Clips have slipped ever closer to the middle of the pack in the West.
With the fact that L.A.'s three previous losses all came against fellow contenders (i.e. the Heat, the Spurs and the Thunder), there may be reason to worry about the Clips' prospects for a deep postseason push.
Especially if L.A. allows its opponents to shoot 55 percent from the field, as the Nuggets did.
Offensive Efficiency: 110.6 (1st)
Defensive Efficiency: 99.7 (6th)
Defense is, has been and will be the name of the game for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They did a marvelous job of tightening the screws on the Carmelo Anthony-less Knicks at Madison Square Garden and have been playing top-six-caliber defense all season.
Come playoff time, the Thunder will more than likely have to grind out some wins as they did in New York. For now, though, they can look forward to running over the likes of the Charlotte Bobcats and the Boston Celtics, as they figure to in the week to come.
Offensive Efficiency: 110.3 (2nd)
Defensive Efficiency: 101.3 (9th)
No extended winning streak can be strung together without at least a smidgen of luck.
In the Miami Heat's case, they were fortunate to hang onto a 17-point second-half lead in the face of a surprisingly hard charge from the lowly Orlando Magic...and their own late-season boredom.
The toughest test is yet to come, though. On March 10, the Heat will host the Indiana Pacers, who've had Miami's number so far this season.
With the roll LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Co. are currently on as a unit, the Heat may well blast right through the Pacers, just as they did against another team (the Knicks) who'd given them fits in the earlier going.
Offensive Efficiency: 107.5 (5th)
Defensive Efficiency: 97.7 (3rd)
No Tony Parker? No problem!
All the Spurs have done since losing their MVP-caliber point guard to a Grade-2 ankle sprain is rip off three wins in a row by an average of 25.3 points.
Granted, two of those were at the expense of the Kings and the Pistons, while the third was against the Derrick Rose-less Bulls. The basketball world will have a better idea as to the true efficacy of Gregg Popovich's plug-and-play system when the Spurs welcome the Thunder to San Antonio on March 11.