With fewer than 20 games remaining in the NBA's regular season, the annual ritual of jockeying for playoff position is in full swing.
While the top spot in the Eastern Conference is firmly in the possession of the Miami Heat, seeds two through seven are up for grabs, with four-and-a-half games separating those five coveted spots.
As for the Western Conference, the race for the No. 1 seed is still too close to call between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, while the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies are separated by a half-game for the third seed.
Look at it this way: At least the Charlotte Bobcats are improving.
After a disastrous 2011-12 season in which they were barely able to post a win percentage over .100, the Bobcats are on track to double that mark in 2012-13.
As Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist continue to develop in the seasons to come, so will the Bobcats, and hopefully we'll see them rise out of the cellar for the first time in 2013-14.
Stockpiling young assets will only help the Bobcats improve in the long run, which should be the team's proximate goal as the regular season draws to a close.
There's no denying the potential that the Orlando Magic possess.
Rookies Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson have proven that with time they can develop into nice complementary players, while center Nikola Vucevic has emerged as a legitimate offensive threat in just his second season.
Averaging a double-double during his first season with Orlando, Vucevic ranks fourth in NBA rebounds per game, although he must continue to improve his post defense in the years to come.
Last but not least is Tobias Harris, who's looked like a stud since coming over to Orlando in a deadline deal.
In 12 games in a Magic uniform, Harris has averaged 15.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.
A quick reminder: He's still just 20 years old.
With Kyrie Irving presumably sidelined for the remainder of the regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers can now focus their attention on obtaining the best odds possible to secure the No. 1 overall pick in this summer's NBA draft.
The Cavs figure to be in prime position to pick up some more elite young talent, adding to their collection that already boasts Irving and Dion Waiters.
Waiters, in particular, has thrived since Irving went out.
After starting the season sluggishly, Waiters has played his way back to respectability, posting 14.7 points per game with a near-average PER of 13.85.
It's been a rough season for the Detroit Pistons, but they have the collective talent to make an impact on a mediocre Eastern Conference next season.
Thanks to Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Jason Maxiell, the Pistons rank fifth in the NBA in total rebounds. They've quickly formed one of the most intimidating front lines in all of basketball.
Consider that the Pistons also now have a workable backcourt situation with Brandon Knight and Jose Calderon, and their future appears fairly bright.
When discussing disappointments from the 2012-13 regular season, the Philadelphia 76ers should top the list.
Granted, they've had to make due without Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson, but their quality of play this season has been unacceptable.
With 12 of their 16 remaining games on the road (where they've posted a record of 6-23), it would come as no surprise if the Sixers sank all the way to the 11th or even 12th spot in the East.
Now that Bynum's slated to have surgery on both of his knees (via Yahoo! Sports), it feels like the Sixers' decision on his future will be a lose-lose proposition.
Currently three games back of the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference standings, bet on the Washington Wizards leapfrogging them en route to finishing as the No. 10 seed.
Despite starting the season 5-28, the Wizards have fought their way into the conversation as one of the league's brightest up-and-coming squads thanks to gritty performances on the defensive end.
Perhaps the biggest indicator that the Wizards are headed in the right direction is that they rank sixth in the NBA's defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.
We've seen teams like the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies thrive with stingy defenses and average offenses, so if John Wall and Bradley Beal can take the next step in 2013-14, the Wizards should be in the postseason conversation.
Even with a small sample size, it appears that the Memphis Grizzlies were wise to deal Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors.
Since arriving north of the border, Gay has taken it upon himself to be the focal point of the offense, hoisting 19.1 shots per game en route to a troubling field-goal percentage of 40.2 (24.7 percent from three).
Although he shot a poor 40.8 percent from the field before getting dealt by Memphis, it was believed that Gay would sustain more success as the primary option in Toronto's offense.
Instead, the Raptors have struggled to find consistency out of Gay, the man who will be key to the team's success for the foreseeable future.
Only two teams are to be locked into their playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference, and unfortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, they're in possession of the spot that will pit them against the Miami Heat in Round 1.
Since starting the season 24-20, the Bucks have gone relatively cold, posting a record of 9-12 in the months of February and March. What's particularly concerning is that the Bucks have allowed a season-high 109.1 points per game thus far in March.
Even if they were playing top-notch ball, it'd be hard to imagine a scenario in which the Bucks could steal more than a game against the Heat in the first round.
For the Atlanta Hawks, the focus throughout the final weeks of the season will be to close on a strong note, pushing their way up the standings en route to a favorable playoff seed.
However, should the Hawks fail to capture a top-five seed, they'll still have a chance to escape the first round of the playoffs.
Outside of the Miami Heat, the Eastern Conference is largely a crapshoot, which bodes well for a team like the Hawks.
Among the realistic first-round matchup possibilities, the New York Knicks feel like a best-case scenario. The Knicks have played some of their worst ball of late, and their defense continues to be a massive problem area that may not be fixed by the time the postseason rolls around.
Barring a return by Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls figure to limp into the playoffs.
Chicago has posted a losing record of 3-5 since the start of March, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering the team's bad luck with injuries.
Richard Hamilton's return is still very much up in the air, while the Bulls have been forced to play without the defensive stylings of Taj Gibson for the better part of the last month.
Depth isn't the Bulls' biggest strength, so perhaps they'd be better served to conserve some energy and rest their key players before laying it all on the line in the postseason.
Thriving without Rajon Rondo, the Boston Celtics have put themselves in a comfortable position for the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Defense has been a hallmark of Doc Rivers' teams through the years, and the Celtics have been winning with defense, holding opponents to an average of 94.8 points per game over the last two months.
Based on recent history, that formula should hold up at playoff time. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will undoubtedly take their games to the next level come April and May, pushing each and every opponent with their ferocious-yet-calculated style of play.
Would it be too much to ask for one final matchup with the Miami Heat in the postseason?
The New York Knicks' sizable lead over the Brooklyn Nets for the top spot in the Atlantic Division has dwindled considerably over the last week.
A messy road trip out West has seen the Knicks' lead shrink to one game, as the absences of Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler have forced Mike Woodson to trot out several unattractive lineups loaded with aging bodies.
With New York's roster decimated due to several injuries, the Knicks struggled to the tune of an 1-4 record on their Western swing.
The bottom is falling out on the Knicks' season at the worst possible time. Don't be surprised if they lose out on the division crown to a Brooklyn team that's been more consistent of late.
Will the Brooklyn Nets be able to play the role of spoiler once the postseason gets underway?
The statistics would seem to indicate not.
Despite being in prime position to steal the division crown from the New York Knicks, the Nets rank 16th in points allowed per 100 possessions (105.8), while they're only slightly better in the offensive department, scoring 107.1 per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.
While the Nets have the veteran experience necessary to make a run, they don't possess the versatility in the personnel department to make them an appealing sleeper pick.
Deron Williams and Joe Johnson can be a fearsome offensive duo, but the consistency from the big guns hasn't been there this season.
The Indiana Pacers have had a rough go of it lately, falling to the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers over the past two weeks.
Fortunately, the Pacers' decline concurred with the New York Knicks' downfall. The Pacers continue to hold a one-game lead over the Knicks for the East's No. 2 seed, while they sit four-and-a-half games ahead of the Chicago Bulls for the Central Division lead.
It would be a shame to see the Pacers limp into the playoffs after such an impressive regular-season effort, but it appears as if Frank Vogel's troops may be tiring out as the season draws to a close.
Will the Miami Heat ever lose?
While it's tempting to say no, it's hard to imagine the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers' streak of 33 consecutive victories falling.
The Heat have looked vulnerable on a few occasions during their impressive run (games against Philadelphia and Sacramento Kingscome to mind), and you have to think that there will be a lapse in their laser-sharp focus for more than a quarter or two in the coming weeks.
Once the Heat get the loss out of their system, head coach Erik Spoelstra will be more inclined to rest his starters in preparation for a lengthy playoff run.
At this juncture it's looking unlikely that any postseason adversary will be able to knock the Heat off of their championship throne.
The end to the 2012-13 season can't come soon enough for the Phoenix Suns.
Former head coach Alvin Gentry was fired after a poor start, but the Suns have only won nine games since making the bold move.
The only thing consistent about the Suns this season has been their inability to sustain production on either end of the floor, as they rank 29th and 22nd in offensive and defensive rating respectively, according to Basketball-Reference.
Rebuilding is in the Suns' future, and that long process will begin this summer.
The Sacramento Kings will give the Phoenix Suns a run for their money for the title of Western Conference's worst team, but ultimately the Kings will escape with a one-game advantage in the win column.
Sacramento is an interesting case study, because unlike the Suns, they perform quite well on one end of the court.
With an offense that ranks in the top-10 in points per game, the Kings are able to keep pace with some of the league's more up-tempo offenses.
Unfortunately, the Kings also rank dead last in opponent's points per game, allowing 104.9 per contest.
New Orleans hasn't been a pretty team to watch in year one of the Anthony Davis era, but they've slowly gained respectability as the season has progressed.
Monty Williams is one of the best young coaches around, and he has a bright future with a New Orleans team that's loaded with potential.
Although they're lacking in several statistical categories, the Hornets rank in the top 16 in both points per 100 possessions (105.6) and opponent's points per game (97.9), according to Basketball-Reference.
Those numbers aren't fantastic by any means, but they're encouraging for a team whose best days lie ahead.
It's been a nightmare season for the Minnesota Timberwolves whose roster has been decimated by injuries for the entirety of the 2012-13 campaign.
Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Chase Budinger, Ricky Rubio and Andrei Kirilenko have all missed chunks of action at one point or another, causing the 'Wolves to plummet into the cellar of the Northwest Division.
This summer will present a nice opportunity for the team to rehabilitate, but it remains to be seen if Pekovic and Kirilenko will return to Rick Adelman's bunch this summer in lieu of chasing big dollars on the open market.
Like many Western Conference teams on the outside looking in, the Portland Trail Blazers must find a way to fortify their defense.
The Blazers' offensive production has been encouraging, as they've averaged 106.6 points per 100 possessions. But, all of that progress has been moot, as they allow opponents to score 108 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.
When analyzing the data, it's not hard to see why the Blazers have become such a weak defensive unit.
With no bench, Terry Stotts has been forced to lean on his starters, whose legs have become quite heavy. They play an average of 35.4 minutes per game—the most in the NBA, according to HoopsStats.
It hasn't been the most invigorating season down in Dallas, but watching Vince Carter at age 36 has been enjoyable at times.
The Mavericks are a team unafraid to pull the trigger on the offensive end, and Vince Carter reflects that.
Carter is shooting 44 percent from the field, but his stroke from the beyond the arc has been on point. Converting on 41.8 percent of his shots from three, Carter is averaging the best three-point percentage of his career.
Old, capable of scoring points in a hurry and unmotivated on the defensive end, Carter epitomizes what the Mavs have become in 2012-13.
You can't help but feel bad for the Utah Jazz. Their late-season slump has perfectly coincided with the Los Angeles Lakers' hot streak, and it's looking like a near-certainty that the Jazz will be on the outside looking in when late April rolls around.
The Jazz have gone 9-12 since the start of February, averaging a weak 96.5 points per game in that span. That's more than a full point below their season average of 97.9.
Although the Lakers only hold a one-game lead over the Jazz for the eighth seed, hopes of a playoff spot appear to be on life support.
According to John Hollinger's playoff odds, the Jazz are staring at a 31.9 percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs while the Lakers' odds are nearly twice that, at 61.5 percent.
The Los Angeles Lakers are not without faults, but they're heating up at the right time.
Thanks to improved performances from Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, the Lakers have gone 16-7 since the start of February. They find themselves posing a threat to the Houston Rockets, who are in possession of the seventh seed out west.
While a matchup with San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs figures to be less than ideal, the Lakers are one of the hottest teams around, a scary proposition for the conference's elite.
Despite all of their early-season hiccups, the Lakers are finally poised to show what their full complement of stars is capable of.
Of all of the Western Conference contenders, the one I simply cannot imagine pulling off a first-round upset is the Golden State Warriors.
With an offense that's unquestionably robust, the Warriors will need to find a way to play stout defense against a superior opponent—whether it be the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs.
Judging by the way this season's gone, it's difficult to imagine the Warriors suddenly flipping that defensive switch come playoff time.
Mark Jackson's crew ranks 20th in the NBA in opponent's points per game (100.2), while they're scoring just a shade better, averaging 100.6 points per.
Much like the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets' main focus over the next few weeks should involve finding ways to improve a rather poor defense.
The Rockets would be a sexy sleeper pick to pull a first-round upset if they had even an average defense, but the fact remains that they are among the league's worst units on that end.
James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin have been a joy to watch in their first year together, but they don't possess the drive to defend effectively on the perimeter.
Houston allows 103.3 points per game, the second-worst mark in all of basketball. Knowing that, the chances of the Rockets winning a playoff series feel extremely slim.
Aside from the Miami Heat's gaudy win streak, the race for the Western Conference's third, fourth and fifth seeds is far and away the most compelling storyline of the last month of the season.
A half-game separates the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers in the standings, with the Clippers currently in possession of the third seed.
The Nuggets have been red hot, winning 12 in a row, but it won't be easy to slow down the Grizzlies or Clippers, each of whom have posted winning records in March.
One positive for Denver: Only three of their final eight games will be played on the road.
The race for the Defensive Player of the Year award has been narrowed down to two deserving candidates: Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah and Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol.
If we were to simply look at a statistical comparison between the two, Noah would be the runaway winner. He has the edge in the rebound and block departments, while he has a higher total rebounding percentage and better defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.
Despite all of the evidence backing Noah, Gasol has crafted a strong case himself.
As is to be expected, when Gasol sits, the Grizzlies struggle on the defensive end.
According to Basketball-Reference, when Gasol is off the court, opponents post an offensive rating of 104.7, 6.4 points better than when he's on the court.
He may not garner the same attention as Noah because he's nowhere near as flashy, but Gasol is as fundamentally sound as any center in the game.
Judging by the way the Los Angeles Clippers move up and down the floor, you'd assume they play at one of the faster paces in the NBA, right?
According to Basketball-Reference, the Clippers rank 18th in pace (91.4 possessions per 48 minutes), despite the fits they cause opponents in the open floor.
If you're a Clipper fan, this is encouraging news. The fact that the Clippers have adjusted, scoring the league's fifth-most points (110.1) per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference) playing at a relatively slow pace bodes well for the team's prospects in the playoffs.
Play in the half court reigns supreme in the postseason, so we should see a more patient and mature Clipper team this time around.
Regardless of where the San Antonio Spurs ultimately finish in the standings, they'll be a tough out come playoff time.
No team in the West can match the Spurs' experience in big games, and no coach is better equipped for big moments than Gregg Popovich.
The most experienced of the team's leaders is Tim Duncan, who has put together an insanely productive season for a guy who's about to turn 37.
Duncan is averaging 17.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, all while maintaining a field-goal percentage above 50 percent.
The San Antonio Spurs could very well end up with the Western Conference's No. 1 seed, but the Oklahoma City Thunder have been on an impressive run lately.
While discussion over the last month has centered around the Miami Heat's impressive streak, the Thunder have been putting in work of their own.
Scott Brooks' squad is 15-6 since the start of February and is playing its best defense of the season, allowing opponents to score an average of 97.4 points per game.
If the Thunder can sustain that defensive production throughout the postseason, they'll be an even tougher out than they were last year.