It's been a couple weeks since we last put all 30 NBA teams into proper context, and boy, how things have changed.
The longest active winning streak in the NBA no longer belongs to either the Miami Heat or the Denver Nuggets. The New York Knicks have just ripped off six straight wins, though even their streak pales in comparison to the eight consecutive losses piled up by the Orlando Magic.
As for those in the Association who don't quite identify with Frank the Tank, there's been no shortage of non-collegiate March Madness to go around. Just about every race—from that for the best record in basketball; to the bloodbath between the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks for the eighth seed in the West; to the battles for home-court advantage in the middle of both conferences and for lottery ping-pong balls at the bottom—has kicked into high gear with just three weeks to go before the playoffs begin.
What effects have all these shakeups had on the league's landscape? Read on to find out!
Note: Analysis reflects standings through March 27 games.
In all honesty, that may not be the fairest designation to place upon the Magic. Terrible as they are, they still play hard for first-year head coach Jacque Vaughn and sport an intriguing base of young talent, with Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris and Moe Harkless at the core.
But the fact remains, Orlando has lost eight games in a row, with injuries to Vucevic and Arron Afflalo exacting a particularly heavy toll.
How heavy? Try blowing-a-19-point-lead-to-the-Charlotte-Bobcats heavy.
Congratulations to the Charlotte Bobcats! You're no longer the worst team in the NBA!
They still own the league's worst point differential by about a mile-and-a-half, at minus-9.7.
Still, that's a massive improvement over last year's minus-13.9 mark. Moreover, that's nearly a full-point improvement since March 9, when the 'Cats clawed away from a 17-point loss to the Washington Wizards.
It certainly helps that Charlotte has compiled a 4-4 record since then, and that the backcourt of Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson has looked like something quite apart from laughingstock material. Those two poured in 34 points apiece to lead the 'Cats out of a 19-point hole in their most recent outing against the Magic.
You could make any number of excuses for the Cleveland Cavaliers' losing ways, nearly all of which are injury-related. Kyrie Irving has been out with a bad shoulder, as has Dion Waiters with a bum knee. Anderson Varejao's one-time All-Star push now seems like a distant memory since he has been out for more than four months with a quad injury.
But we're not here to make excuses for bad teams. Rather, we're here to call 'em like we see 'em, and right now, the Cavs are an odd phenomenon, to say the least. They've managed to hang tough with the San Antonio Spurs, build a 27-point lead on the Miami Heat, survive a virtuoso performance from John Wall and nearly knock off the Boston Celtics (among other things) since March 12.
This, despite a starting lineup whose lone holdovers from Byron Scott's ideal five are Tristan Thompson and Alonzo Gee.
The Cavs would certainly get more dap for what they've done if they hadn't lost their last six games in a row. After all, winning and losing have to count for something, don't they, Herm Edwards?
(And yes, I'm well aware that I've already made two references to NFL coaches. Ask me if I care. I dare you.)
DEEEEEE-TROOOIIIIIT BAAAASKETBAAALLLLLL...is terrible—like really terrible.
The Detroit Pistons' 10-game losing streak to start the month of March is only one part (albeit a big one) of the futility that has engulfed this once-proud franchise for the umpteenth time since 2008. They've lost an astounding 14-of-16 games since Feb. 22, with only one-point wins over the Washington Wizards and the Charlotte Bobcats to punctuate the depressing monotony in the Motor City.
Along the way, it has also become all too clear just how limited Greg Monroe's ceiling might be. Where Monroe once had the makings of a borderline franchise-type player, he now looks like just another ho-hum piece in a puzzle that general manager Joe Dumars has jumbled into basketball oblivion.
Not that Monroe's numbers (15.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.3 steals in 33.1 minutes) are anything at which to snub your nose. But a guy who grades out as a poor man's Al Jefferson—i.e. an offensive hub who shoots under 50 percent from the field and drags down his team's defense—hardly represents the cornerstone any future Pistons fans should want to be a part of.
Let's take a moment to eulogize the Morris Family Reunion that the Phoenix Suns attempted to revive themselves with at the trade deadline. However you slice it, Markieff and Marcus Morris just haven't been good for each other's games since they became NBA teammates.
This probably comes as something of a shock to the Morris twins, as well as to Bill Self, their former coach at the University of Kansas. According to Jere Longman of The New York Times, Self and Markieff both lobbied Suns management to pursue Marcus and convinced the team that the brothers would revive each other's games. After all, they'd played together for their entire lives up until reaching the professional ranks and, as the story goes, they just weren't the same without one another, which, in a way, is true.
Thus far, though, they've only made things worse on the court for themselves as well as for the Suns. It's no wonder, then, that Marcus' playing time has been sporadic (at best) over the last two weeks.
On the flip side, at least Phoenix didn't have to fork over anything more than a second-round pick to make this happen. Still, one would hope that this fiasco would be lesson enough to keep the Suns from getting personnel advice from players and coaches who have so little pull with the organization in the first place.
Remember when Rudy Gay was going to rescue the Toronto Raptors from the depths of the Eastern Conference standings?
The Raps are now 10-15 since helping the Memphis Grizzlies solve their biggest financial problem, including an abysmal mark of 3-11 since Feb. 25. Gay has played in 22 games as a Raptor, averaging 19.6 points on 40.3 percent shooting (24.4 percent from three) to go along with 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 3.2 turnovers in 36.1 minutes per outing.
As a result, the Raps have fallen from a fringe playoff team with hopes of knocking the Milwaukee Bucks out of the picture to a team that may soon be looking up at the Washington Wizards.
This is not to say that the drop is necessarily all Gay's fault, though he hasn't exactly done much to save the Raptors from yet another late-season free fall either.
It's pretty amazing how the Sacramento Kings' fortunes on and off the court have nearly mirrored one another. The Kings posted a respectable 5-5 record between March 8 and March 27, during which time the city of Sacramento's case for keeping the team from fleeing to Seattle gathered some serious momentum.
Case in point: Sacramento upended the Golden State Warriors (i.e. their Northern California "rivals") shortly after news broke that Vivek Ranadive, a minority stakeholder with the Warriors, would be pulling out of Golden State to head up a group of wealthy tycoons that had already been assembled to purchase the Kings from the Maloofs.
Of course, that doesn't mean that the Kings will necessarily stay in Sacramento. Chris Hansen is still locked into moving the team to the Pacific Northwest to revive the Seattle SuperSonics. Likewise, the Kings themselves remain destined for the draft lottery once again, despite their recent improvement.
But, on both fronts, progress is progress, even if it's not as vast or as rapid as most people in California's capital might prefer.
Just when it looked like the Philadelphia 76ers had completely quit on Doug Collins, they appear to have discovered another reason to soldier on.
Is it professional pride? Is it the value of a hard day's work? Could it be that the Sixers aren't content to just sit back and let the guaranteed checks roll in?
Whatever the case may be, the results are showing. Philly is 5-4 over its last nine contests, including wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks, along with narrow defeats to the Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets during their respective streaks.
Maybe, just maybe, there's some hope for an Andrew Bynum-less future in the City of Brotherly Love after all.
The NBA was kind and forthcoming enough to admit that its referees blew what should've been a foul on Kobe Bryant and three free throws for Ricky Rubio in the waning seconds of the Minnesota Timberwolves' 120-117 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday.
That is all well and good except:
1) It doesn't change the fact that the T-Wolves lost the game, and are now 0-22 in their last 22 meetings with the Purple and Gold, and...
2) There's no indication as to what the league plans to do in regards to reprimanding the officials responsible for the call and/or to curb such instances of referee negligence in the future.
To be sure, there is no guarantee that the game would have gone to overtime, or that the T-Wolves would have won, had the foul been called. Ricky Rubio isn't exactly an ace shooter, as his 77.4-percent free throw success rate would suggest.
But, it's not as though the T-Wolves needed any more reason to feel slighted by the basketball gods. Their season has already been derailed by injuries to nearly every player of consequence on the roster. Is it too much for the T-Wolves to ask for a decent call once in a while?
Say what you want about the New Orleans Hornets, but they've had some rather eye-opening moments during their final pre-Pelicans campaign.
For instance, prior to a 14-point thumping at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers, the Hornets had ripped off three-straight wins against the Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets—all of which are playoff teams. Of those three, their most impressive performance came against the Nuggets, who ran into New Orleans on a 15-game winning streak and limped away with a 24-point defeat.
If the core group of Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Greivis Vasquez and Ryan Anderson can ever stay healthy for an extended period of time, and if Austin Rivers can develop into something more than the biggest liability in the NBA, the Hornets may well have a winner on their hands before long.
The Washington Wizards are to the East what the New Orleans Hornets are to the West: a talented team with some intriguing pieces that's been ravaged by the injury bug all season, but is now giving the world a glimpse of things to come in 2013-14.
For the Wizards, the big difference-maker is none other than John Wall. Washington is 21-17 when Wall has played this season, as opposed to being 5-28 without him.
This—along with the Wizards' top-10 defense and the Milwaukee Bucks' underwhelming postseason bid—suggests that things would be rather different in D.C. right about now had Wall not missed the first 33 games of the season due to his bothersome left knee.
But there's no changing the past for the Wiz. All we know is that, if Wall can stay healthy, they'll make some noise in the Eastern Conference next season, as Washington's run of six wins in its last nine games would suggest.
Speaking of teams whose futures are brighter on account of 22-year-old point guards, how about those Portland Trail Blazers? You've probably heard by now that Damian Lillard, their first-year floor general, is pretty darn good.
He is indeed. Lillard leads all rookies in points (19.0) and assists (6.5) per game. His performance thus far has made him the runaway favorite for the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year Award, to the extent that he just might sweep up all the votes.
That would put Lillard in some rather elite company. Only Ralph Sampson, David Robinson and Blake Griffin have ever won the honor unanimously. The first two are already in the Hall of Fame, while the third has been to three straight All-Star Games and has been featured in enough highlight reels to fully stock another YouTube-like website.
Those are lofty standards for Lillard to live up to, but if his first-year performance is any indication of things to come, he won't be intimidated by it one bit.
It appears as though the Milwaukee Bucks have finally realized that a future with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings sharing a backcourt doesn't make any sense, and it seems as though they have decided which of the two would be a better fit for their future—that is, if Jim Boylan's coaching decisions are any indication.
Boylan opted to sit Jennings during the fourth quarter of the Bucks' 100-92 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday. The decision ensured that Jennings would go scoreless for the first time in his pro career and that Ellis would take over the reins of Milwaukee's offense.
It was not the worst decision, considering that Ellis finished the game with 29 points and seven assists. Then again, as poorly (and scarcely) as Jennings had played during the first three quarters, the Bucks had the lead going into the fourth.
Nobody ever said Milwaukee's personnel picks were always the right ones—or even the right ones half the time.
Wins over the Sixers and the Suns are not all that impressive, but if you're the Utah Jazz, they are far better than the alternative.
The Jazz had dropped four in a row and 12-of-15 dating back to mid-February, when they peaked at seven games above .500. Since then, the Los Angeles Lakers have assumed from them the eighth seed in the West, while the Dallas Mavericks have come roaring back into the mix as well.
So yeah, double-digit victories against the NBA's pre-eminent "Ph" teams may not be cause for celebration, but they've been enough to ensure that Utah doesn't fall too far from the postseason conversation in the Western Conference.
Apparently, all the Dallas Mavericks needed to get back into the playoff picture was to stay away from razors.
Well, that and some surprising synergy between Mike James and Dirk Nowitzki.
Since James became the Mavs' full-time starting point guard on March 6, Nowitzki has seen his overall field goal percentage and three-point percentage improve significantly between times when he does and doesn't share the floor with the 37-year-old journeyman (per NBA.com).
Not surprisingly, that partnership has borne tremendous results for Dallas as a whole. The Mavs won nine of their first 12 games after James was named as the starter, which helped them move from the fringes to the thick of the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
The Los Angeles Lakers were lucky to win their first game without Metta World Peace. As mentioned earlier, the NBA apologized to the Minnesota Timberwolves for failing to award three free throws to Ricky Rubio, who was clearly fouled by both Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard on the final play of Wednesday night's contest.
But the fact is, the Lakers shouldn't have needed help from the referees to pull that game out. They led by as many as 14 points with less than seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter, with each member of the "Big Four" turning in solid-to-strong performances on the evening.
That is, if you ignore L.A.'s turnovers woes.
The Lakers gave the ball away a whopping 21 times at the Target Center, 12 of which could be traced back to either Kobe or Nash. The team's inability to take care of the ball and to get back on defense when those turnovers fuel transition opportunities for the opposition have cost the Purple and Gold on many an occasion this season.
This one time, they were fortunate to have Kobe and Dwight overcome the mistakes. Next time, though, the Lakers, with their precarious cushion on the eighth seed in the West, may not be so lucky.
Whether you applaud the Boston Celtics for beating the Cleveland Cavaliers on a last-second layup by Jeff Green or condemn them for needing such heroics to upend a team absent Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, the fact remains: The C's needed a win in the worst way and managed to pull it out.
Boston had lost five in a row prior to the team's escape from Ohio, all the while showing the ill effects of trying to persevere with Kevin Garnett joining Rajon Rondo in street clothes.
The Celtics had better hope KG's left foot feels significantly better even before the playoffs roll around. Otherwise, they're liable to fall back into the eighth spot—if, for whatever reason, the Bucks ever get their act together and obtain the No. 7 seed—which would leave them with a tough-but-intriguing (to say the least) first-round matchup against the Miami Heat.
Danny Ferry may not be Executive of the Year material in the NBA just yet, but the guy deserves some credit for what he's done with the Atlanta Hawks. He subtracted Joe Johnson from the equation this past summer, and yet, the Hawks are still right around where they have been for the last five years—which is to say the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Between Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague, the Hawks have the requisite talent to give either the Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets or Chicago Bulls a run for their money in the first round.
Beyond that, they would probably not have too much success, though anything more than a postseason win or two would be gravy for a franchise that's opted for fringe success in its rebuilding process while others have jumped straight into the tank.
After surviving the ups and downs of the first four months of the season, the Houston Rockets appear to have steadied themselves into a winning way in March. They've won 8-of-12 games since the last turn of the calendar, including a marquee victory over the San Antonio Spurs that was sealed on a late jumper by James Harden.
The Rockets will need Harden at his best if they're to continue their roll toward the sixth seed in the Western Conference. They'll play six of their last 11 games on the road, including a trio of particularly tough matchups against the Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets and the Lakers.
Of course, I'm sure the rest of the basketball world wouldn't mind if Houston were to finish seventh out West. This would put the Rockets in line to end their three-year playoff drought with a series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, with whom James Harden has some history, as I'm sure you are well aware.
Please excuse the Golden State Warriors. They probably would have beaten the Sacramento Kings at Oracle Arena had Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson not shot a combined 6-of-31 from the floor.
But perhaps that's the point. The Warriors rely heavily (maybe even too heavily) on two guards who don't penetrate much and are prone to streaky shooting.
To be sure, Golden State's defense has improved significantly under Mark Jackson's tutelage, and the frontcourt tandem of David Lee and Andrew Bogut ensure that the team's offense will never be one-dimensional.
Still, if the Dubs are to do anything more than flame out of the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets or Oklahoma City Thunder, it'll be up to Thompson and Curry to carry them from the perimeter, for better or worse.
As exciting as it was to see the Chicago Bulls end the Miami Heat's historic winning streak, I couldn't help but wonder as to whether the result was somewhat bittersweet for folks in the Windy City.
Not that there isn't plenty for which the Bulls should be jubilant about. They'll go down as the team that stifled the defending champs, that bludgeoned LeBron James to the point of frustration and that left Miami 27-1 in its last 28 games.
But inherent in that victory was the effort that Chicago registered without Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton and, of course, Derrick Rose. The former two figure to be back in action in due time, though Rose's return remains in doubt.
With D-Rose back in the fold, the Bulls might just have the horses to make some serious noise against a weak crew of Eastern Conference squads come playoff time. But without him, they would struggle to sustain such top-notch effort long enough to win four games out of seven against a quality opponent.
There's nothing coincidental about the Brooklyn Nets winning eight of their last 11 games. Deron Williams and Brook Lopez have both been playing exceedingly well during that particular stretch to give the Nets a bit of a cushion in their effort to lock up homecourt advantage in the East.
Both have averaged upwards of 20 points during this time, with Williams shooting 48.9 percent from the floor and 41.3 percent from three while also chipping in 8.5 assists (against just 2.2 turnovers) in 37 minutes. Lopez, meanwhile, has scored his 20.9 points on an efficient 55.8 percent shooting from the floor—a number that includes hook shots, up-and-unders and mid-range jumpers.
Now, if only Joe Johnson (13.9 points on 41.9 percent shooting since March 6) could ever hop aboard, the Nets might yet have the pieces to give the Miami Heat a serious headache at some point in the postseason.
The causes for concern seem to grow by the day for the Memphis Grizzlies.
They've lost three of their last four games and 5-of-8 since mid-March to slip from third to fifth in the Western Conference. That stretch included two games without Marc Gasol, who missed those contests with an abdominal injury, but he returned in time to make a game out of what would have been an embarrassing blowout against the New York Knicks on Wednesday night. Memphis must monitor Gasol's midsection closely in the weeks to come, lest they imperil their impending playoff run before it even begins.
The Grizz would also do well to give Zach Randolph a rest at some point. Z-Bo's been battling a bum ankle since Memphis' loss to the Miami Heat on March 1. Randolph's averages of 14 points and 10.3 rebounds in that time are nothing to scoff at, though the Grizz will need even more than that from their All-Star if they're to return to their post-Rudy Gay winning ways in time for the playoffs.
The news (h/t Los Angeles Times) regarding Danny Granger's season-ending surgery would be more devastating to the Indiana Pacers if not for the fact that they've fared just fine without him all season. Granger's bad knees kept him out of all but five of the Pacers' games in 2012-13, though Indy did well to win four of the five contests in which he was featured.
Granger aside, the Pacers have the pieces to push their way into the Eastern Conference Finals. Their starting lineup of Paul George, George Hill, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson and David West—the third-most used five-man group in the NBA—has outscored the opposition by 13.5 points per 100 possessions.
That is crucial, considering only the Blazers' bench has been less productive than the one in Indy. Granger could have given the Pacers some additional scoring punch off the pine had he managed to heal up.
Instead, the onus will fall even more heavily on Indy's starters—particularly Paul George—to take care of business on the offensive end for however long the Pacers survive into the postseason.
You've got to hand it to the New York Knicks. They've ripped off six wins a row without Tyson Chandler, who's arguably their most important player, while relying almost exclusively on Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith to carry the scoring load.
To be sure, the Knicks are fortunate to have faced the Magic, the Raptors (twice) and a pair of impaired playoff teams during that span. And, chances are, New York's role in the postseason will be limited unless Chandler regains his health and the Knicks get more consistent play out of Raymond Felton, who has struggled considerably since suffering a hand injury back in February.
For now, though, the Knicks can't be faulted for relying on what few healthy bodies they have, or for hanging onto the No. 2 seed in the East on the strength of Melo and Smith's combined scoring binges.
The Los Angeles Clippers have landed back in the No. 3 spot in the West amid an ongoing game of musical chairs involving themselves, the Denver Nuggets and the Grizzlies.
This not to say that the Clippers have necessarily played themselves back into that position so much as they've been fortunate to see the the Grizzlies lose three of four and the Nuggets drop two in a row since their 15-game winning streak came to a halt.
L.A. is similarly fortunate to employ an all-purpose superstar like Chris Paul at the moment. He's picked up his play considerably since Feb. 28, averaging 20.6 points and 10.0 assists in his last 13 games.
The Clips have needed every morsel of CP3's contributions to stay afloat among the best in the West. Their tremendous depth has been mitigated by intermittent injuries to Eric Bledsoe, Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups, among others, while Blake Griffin has looked like an All-Star in only fits and spurts of late.
The end of the Denver Nuggets' epic 15-game winning streak was about as ugly as you might expect—considering all the bullets the team managed to dodge along the way—as they lost to the ho-hum Hornets by a whopping 24 points in New Orleans on Monday night.
Considering how streaky-hot Denver got, this loss makes some sense. After all, it only figures that a team that relies so heavily on incessant, go-go energy and relentless hustle would flame out in a big way once it hit the skids.
A close loss to the San Antonio Spurs just two nights later was far more indicative of Denver's strengths than the loss to the Hornets was of its weaknesses. The Nuggets managed to give the Western Conference leaders a run for their money on the road despite getting so little from Ty Lawson (two points, three assists and two steals in 20 minutes). Still, their incredible bench outscored San Antonio's by a startling 59-18 margin.
Though, come playoff time, that depth probably won't matter quite as much, as the pace of play slows and opposing stars begin to play upwards of 40 minutes on a regular basis.
The San Antonio Spurs have enjoyed their spot atop the Western Conference for much of the second half of the season, though that reign may soon come to a close. The Spurs' lead on the West's No. 1 seed has shrunk to just 1.5 games over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
There is also a brutal stretch run to come. San Antonio will play eight of its final 11 games against playoff-bound opponents, including five against the West's top eight on the road.
The Spurs certainly have the wherewithal to survive (if not thrive) through such a schedule. They own the NBA's second-best road record, and they have managed to win all manner of games this season despite the injury bug eating its way through their roster.
The more pertinent question is: Will Gregg Popovich care to push his players in pursuit of a plum postseason position or will he sit his stars in anticipation of another grueling playoff run?
Expect Pop to make the right choice, whatever that may be.
Don't look for the Oklahoma City Thunder to be so cautious, though. That game-and-a-half that stands between OKC and San Antonio should be all the motivation the Thunder need to power through their last 10 games before gearing up for a return trip to the NBA Finals.
We'll know better how Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and company feel about the waning weeks of the regular season when they "welcome" the Spurs into their building on April 4. A win in that game may well launch the Thunder back to the top of the standings, though they'd need to outlast at least four other playoff teams thereafter to ensure that the new spot sticks.
The Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak was fun while it lasted, but its conclusion was always going to be a good thing for the defending champions.
Gone is the tremendous pressure that comes with chasing history. Gone is the impetus to play LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for 40 minutes per game when the Heat have all but wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Gone are all the worn-out narratives and silly discussions about how this Miami team measures up to some of the greatest squads in NBA history.
Instead, with the loss in Chicago behind them, the Heat can use the last 11 games of the regular season—six of which will be against lottery teams—to rest up and refocus their efforts toward winning the East for the third year in a row as they attempt to taking home another Larry O'Brien Trophy.