How does Kobe's health affect the Western Conference playoff picture?
The NBA playoff picture is coming into clearer focus, but there are still a handful of teams whose postseason picture is not yet certain.
With three quarters of the schedule down, there aren't too many mysteries about a given NBA team. The scrubs of the league are languishing and the powerhouses have long ago asserted their dominance. It's the squads in the middle class—for whom the postseason is not a given—that we're concerned with here.
Most of the drama in the season's endgame comes down to jockeying for better seeding. For the teams in question here, their playoff fate still hangs in the balance.
Funny thing about the Eastern Conference this season: There's absolutely no fringe postseason race of which to speak.
Blame an abject lack of parity for this one. The Miami Heat are miles ahead of everyone else in the East, but there is a distinct schism between the playoff-bound teams and those playing for ping-pong balls.
The second-placed Indiana Pacers and the eighth-placed Milwaukee Bucks are separated by seven games—nearly as many as the gap between the Bucks and the ninth-place Philadelphia 76ers.
That means the Heat, Pacers, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and the Bucks are all definitely going to be in the postseason. Forget about whether or not these teams have clinched a playoff spot yet; it's a foregone conclusion.
The juggernauts of the Western Conference have made their futures clear—as have the whipping boys.
There's a clear hierarchy in the West that separates the greatest teams from the good and the bad. That's where you'll find the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets. For the toast of the conference, making the postseason is no issue.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the teams that have no chance. No one should be surprised that the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Hornets fall in this group. By no fault of their own, the injury-ravaged Minnesota Timberwolves reside there, too.
While the Golden State Warriors aren't any better than the fringe Western teams, they have built enough of a cushion to assure their playoff spot as well. That leaves five remaining teams to vie for two postseason berths.
The Houston Rockets are by no means tearing it up right now, but with their season-ending slate, that doesn't matter.
At 37-31, James Harden and company should be fine even if they just play .500 ball. Fortunately for them, only six of their 14 remaining games are against teams currently on pace to make the postseason, and eight of those 14 are at home.
Considering the Rockets—like most teams—are markedly better at home and against losing teams, it looks like smooth sailing for them. The frenetic attack led by Harden and Jeremy Lin is showing no signs of letting up, which is bad news for teams tiring towards the end of the year.
It's possible that Houston will get passed in the standings and end up fighting for the eighth seed in the West. That said, it's unlikely that they'll drop out of the postseason picture entirely.
When the Los Angeles Lakers were a melodramatic mess early in the 2012-13 season, their playoff hopes amounted to a crapshoot.
That was before Kobe Bryant and the cavalcade of stars finally started to gel. Dwight Howard started looking like his old self again, Kobe began distributing while still pouring in buckets, propelling the once-woeful crew up to the eighth spot in the West. With L.A.'s star power cooking, the postseason concerns faded away.
However, Bryant's sprained ankle has thrown that outlook back into question.
The Lakers' individual pieces are talented enough to hold off the competition, but there's little structure to their system without Bryant. Then there's the matter of how much Kobe can play down the stretch—not to mention how effective he will be playing on one ankle.
After what L.A. has done to climb back into the hunt, this team can't be counted out. But with their leader hobbled, the Lakers' odds of holding on to a playoff spot are tantamount to a coin flip.
There's a curious paradox happening with the Utah Jazz late in the season.
On one hand, this team has the raw ability to surpass the vulnerable Lakers. Between the formidable post combo of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson and a plethora of talented young players, the Jazz have a balanced yet potent offense capable of powering them through the back end of their schedule.
However, making the playoffs might not actually be in Utah's best interest.
Even if the Jazz do emerge with one of the West's final postseason berths, there's little chance they'll make anything of it. Their offense still wouldn't do much against the Spurs or Thunder, let alone their porous defense.
That's more than enough reason to lean more on Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter—Utah's frontcourt of the future. The veterans will still get the majority of the touches, but giving the young guns some more run is the type of long-term thinking that could cost the Jazz some short-term success.
Since they've been buried in the standings for so long, you might not have noticed the Dallas Mavericks slowly crawling back towards respectability.
Though they were 13-23 in the beginning of January, the Mavs' have nearly done a 180 in the standings. Once Dirk Nowitzki returned from a knee injury and got into a groove with O.J. Mayo, Dallas started to look more like the team we've been accustomed to for the past decade-plus.
Dirk's squad has gone 19-13 since that miserable start. That's why the Mavericks' playoff odds are so high.
It used to be blasphemous to suggest that Nowitzki would miss the postseason; now it's simply math. Unless Dallas does some damage in eight remaining games against teams on pace for the playoffs, it will be a tall task to surpass both the Lakers and the Jazz.
Perhaps it would've been different had Dirk been healthy for the whole season. In all likelihood, he'll have to ponder that from his couch this spring.
The Portland Trail Blazers are falling out of the Western Conference playoff race, but don't blame the starters.
Four of the Blazers' five starters are averaging over 35 minutes per game this season. Portland is the only team in the NBA that can say that—though its method of working the starters to cover up depth issues is going poorly.
It's a good thing Portland picked up Eric Maynor at the trade deadline; now they have a sixth guy playing more than just 20 minutes per game. That said, it's too little, too late for the tired Blazers, who have dropped 13 of their last 19 games.
Portland's core is certainly good enough to make multiple postseason appearances in the coming years. Until the Blazers get a second unit for support, their playoff chances are slim.