Predicting Winners and Losers of NBA's Stretch Run
If NBA fans know one thing, it's that March Madness doesn't just apply to college basketball.
The final month of the season is upon us, and the Association is certainly full of storylines. Where will the Los Angeles Lakers finish? How many games will the Miami Heat win before they finally lose?
There are more questions than answers at this point in the year, but if one thing's for sure, it's that the league we love is in full swing and the game we crave is as entertaining as ever.
The season's final stretch will be full of accomplishments, but remember that every accomplishment comes at the expense of somebody else. The league is full of both heroes and goats, and we're bound to see each come to the surface with the playoffs rapidly approaching.
Loser: Charlotte Bobcats
To go through every bad team in the NBA and denote them losers would be tedious, as fans know which squads simply didn't show up.
However, the Charlotte Bobcats are the exception to the rule, as they deserve special attention for how poorly they’ve played.
Simply put, Charlotte epitomizes a bad basketball team. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker appear to be the franchise players moving forward, but neither one has shown that he is capable of turning this team around on his own.
There’s no such thing as an easy game for this group, especially with the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets making up 40 percent of its final 15 games.
If one thing forced Charlotte into the loser category, it was the return of John Wall. Without Wall in the lineup, the Washington Wizards were right there with the Bobcats as the worst team in the NBA.
Now, that title belongs solely to Charlotte, as they’ll continue dropping games until this year mercifully comes to an end.
Winner: Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers might have a championship-or-bust mentality following the 2012 offseason, but simply making the playoffs is going to be a huge victory.
Entering the postseason with some momentum will make them winners to wind down the year. They’re 11-4 in their first 15 games following All-Star Weekend, and the rest of March looks promising, with only one playoff opponent in their next five games.
The flaw in the scheme for L.A. is that it closes out the season against the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Even the game before that stretch will be tough, as the Lakers travel up to Portland—a place that hasn’t been kind to them over the years.
If the team drops those contests, it automatically falls out of the winner's category and becomes a team desperate to win a single game against a top-seeded opponent.
However, finishing strong with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol back on the floor will put the Lakers in position to grab the No. 6 seed out West—something nobody thought was possible in mid-February.
Loser: New York Knicks
The New York Knicks began the 2012-13 season as one of the surprises in the NBA. They were on fire from deep range, their experience trumped their age and they were challenging the Miami Heat for the No. 1 spot out East.
However, following an 18-5 start, the Knicks have turned into a .500 basketball team, and they’re in a tight battle with the Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers for the second seed.
Despite coming back down to Earth, the bigger concern here is health. Carmelo Anthony has missed time with a knee injury, Amar’e Stoudemire has returned to the sidelines and Tyson Chandler is set to have an MRI on his strained neck (according to ESPN’s Chris Broussard).
Even Kurt Thomas—Chandler’s backup—is out with a bone spur (according to ESPN’s Jared Zwerling).
The Knicks no longer look like the contenders that we once thought they were, and it’s possible that they enter the postseason with as little momentum as they’ve had all season.
Winner: Denver Nuggets
The Miami Heat have stolen headlines heading into the stretch, which means the Denver Nuggets have quietly strung together 12 straight wins with a month left in the 2012-13 season.
Following an ugly five-game stint, the team turned around and hasn't lost in nearly an entire month. It'll certainly be tested by the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs over the next few weeks, but its schedule also comprises the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Hornets and Sacramento Kings to add balance.
When it comes down to it, nobody wants to face this group when the postseason finally arrives. Although the fifth seed has appeared to be theirs for a while now, the Nuggets have a legitimate chance to pass the Memphis Grizzlies for the four-spot.
These guys even have a chance to nab the third seed if they stay hot, avoiding the No. 1 seed in the second round.
If Denver keeps doing what it's doing, it will be one of the true winners to close out the year.
Loser: Utah Jazz
When you look at the Eastern Conference, you have eight teams that have all established themselves as playoff groups in 2013.
That couldn't be further from the case out West, as we still have four teams fighting for the final three spots.
The Utah Jazz were looking like a playoff team early in the year, but since the emergence of the Los Angeles Lakers, their chances of making the postseason have decreased significantly. The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are the other two squads in the mix, and they look like the more talented, more dangerous units at this juncture.
Whichever team lands the No. 9 spot will go down as a loser for the 2012-13 season. Missing the playoffs is one thing, but getting the worst lottery spot there is in an extremely weak draft will do little for the long-term prospect of a rebuilding roster.
At this point, Utah looks like the odd team out, and it looks as if it will have a long offseason to plan its next move.
Winner: Miami Heat
The Miami Heat are on an absolute tear, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll slow down between now and the end of the season.
Coming off a 105-103 victory over the Boston Celtics Monday night—their 23rd win in a row—it appears that the Heat are going to get awfully close to tying the all-time NBA record of 33 straight wins. They weren’t looking like the defending champs partway through the season, but now it appears that nobody can get in their way.
Following win No. 23, Miami has a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way. Matchups against the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks could provide some drama depending on which version of the two opponents show up, but the only real competition left should come in the form of the San Antonio Spurs on March 31.
The question about halfway through the year was whether or not this group could flip the switch. It appears that the answer is a resounding yes, as the Heat are set to enter the postseason as the NBA's hottest team, potentially holding the league’s best record.