I'd be more forlorn about the impending end of the 2012-13 NBA regular season if not for the fact that April is usually the worst time to watch pro basketball. Teams on both ends of the spectrum are typically busy resting their biggest stars—the bad teams as they try to tank, and the good teams as they rest up for deep postseason pushes.
Not that there aren't plenty of interesting races going on. Every seed in the Western Conference is still up for grabs in some sense, with the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder duking it out at the top and the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz, and the Dallas Mavericks embroiled in a free-for-all at the bottom. In the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers are neck-and-neck in the race for No. 2, while just a handful of games separate Nos. 4 through 7.
And, if you're into bad basketball, you can always tune in to see the Charlotte Bobcats and the Orlando Magic duke it out.
All of which will make "power ranking" the league's 30 teams a tad more difficult going forward, though we'll do our best to keep you abreast of how they stack up against one another anyway.
Even though nobody knows who's playing for whom from night to night.
Note: Analysis reflects standings through April 4 games.
If you’re going to tank, you might as well go all the way, right?
The Orlando Magic would certainly seem to think so. Their latest losing streak is up to three in a row—all to playoff teams, mind you—to worsen their record to an astonishingly bad 7-44 since their encouraging 12-13 start.
That futility has allowed the Magic to pull within a half-game of the Charlotte Bobcats in the race to land the most ping pong balls in this spring’s NBA draft lottery. But, as the Bobcats learned last time around, owning the worst record in basketball doesn’t double as a guarantee for landing the top pick.
Otherwise, Anthony Davis would be practicing against Michael Jordan right about now.
Gerald Henderson appears to have figured out this whole "Playing in the NBA as the Son of a Former Player" thing.
Either that, or he's just really anxious to get paid this summer.
In any case, Henderson's looked like an honest-to-goodness baller of late. Over his last 14 games, the fourth-year guard out of Duke has averaged nearly 23 points with phenomenal shooting splits of .512/.400/.861, 4.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists while playing competent defense on the perimeter.
All of which points to Henderson, a soon-to-be restricted free agent, making a decent chunk o' change once his services are up for bid in July.
Don't count out the Cleveland Cavaliers from the NBA's late-season "Race to the Bottom." They've dropped 10 games in a row and have gone a ghastly 2-14 since March 1.
Not that their futility should surprise anybody. They've been banged up all year, with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao chief among a litany of injured contributors. Things have gotten so bad that even Luke Walton has garnered major minutes for this club—much to the delight of Grantland's Zach Lowe.
It'd be easy to peg the Cavs' disturbing lack of fitness for the blame, though doing so isn't entirely fair. After all, Kyrie dropped 31 points in his first game back from a bum shoulder and Cleveland still lost.
To the New Orleans Hornets.
You can tell the Phoenix Suns are new to this whole "tanking" thing by their sheer lack of discretion.
Consider the curious case of Goran Dragic. The Slovenian point guard had been on a roll for the Suns, capping a run of five straight double-doubles with a 31-point, 12-assist, nine-rebound performance in a narrow defeat to the Brooklyn Nets.
Three days later, Dragic was parked on the bench while Phoenix fell to the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City, and found himself similarly DQ'd the next day during a loss to the Sacramento Kings. Dragic was miraculously back in action on March 30th and April 3rd, when the Suns lost to the Indiana Pacers and the Los Angeles Clippers, respectively.
What's the big deal? Why does it matter that the Suns decided to sit Dragic for two games in the middle of a seven-game losing streak?
Because their doing so was meant to directly impact their own NBA draft fortunes in a not-so-sneaky way. Phoenix owns the Los Angeles Lakers' 2013 first-round pick if it falls in the lottery. The Jazz are currently competing with the Lakers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Dragic didn't play in Utah...
I'll leave you to connect the dots.
Give the Detroit Pistons some credit. They may stink to the high heavens, but at least they're finally showing some fight again.
Their 108-98 win over the Toronto Raptors was plenty encouraging, mostly because:
A) The chips fell in Detroit's favor despite a 34-point bonanza by Rudy Gay, and
B) Jose Calderon described the victory over his old team as one of the highlights of his NBA career.
Remember, Calderon had spent his entire career in Toronto prior to moving to the Motor City as part of the Rudy Gay trade. Let's just say, he hasn't seen many good days in the NBA.
And probably won't see many more so long as he's a Piston.
The NBA doesn't know whether the Sacramento Kings will still be, well, the Sacramento Kings in 2013-14, and probably won't until late April, at the earliest.
According to Jeff Zillgitt and Sam Amick of USA Today, the power players from Sacramento and Seattle that are vying to purchase the Kings from the Maloofs both traveled to New York City on April 3 to sway David Stern, Adam Silver and the league's Board of Governors one way or the other as to who should own the forlorn franchise and where it should play going forward.
If the team's on-court performance is any indication, perhaps California's capital will have something to look forward to after all. The Kings were a respectable 7-8 in March, with five of those losses coming by seven points or fewer.
I know, you're all shocked that the Toronto Raptors are back in the NBA draft lottery for the fourth year in a row and the eighth time in the last 12.
But there's at least one silver lining to brighten up the black cloud of yet another lost season in Ontario. All the losing appears to have finally convinced head coach Dwane Casey to loosen the leash on Jonas Valanciunas.
So far, the results have been positive, perhaps even overwhelmingly so. Since March 17th, the big Lithuanian has averaged 16.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 34.1 minutes while shooting 66.7 percent from the field and an astonishing 85.4 percent from the free-throw line.
Those numbers were all boosted significantly by Jonas' breakout performance against the Washington Wizards, wherein he scored a career-high 24 points and hit 16-of-18 freebies to propel the Raptors to a 10-point win.
Good enough for you, Dwane?
So much for the New Orleans Hornets playing spoiler down the stretch. They've dropped three games against playoff-bound opponents since ripping off consecutive victories against the Boston Celtics, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets.
Not that New Orleans won't still have opportunities to make things interesting going forward. With games against the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks (twice) left on the schedule, the Hornets may well decide the fate of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference before settling into a future as the Pelicans.
With a win over the Toronto Raptors, the Minnesota Timberwolves would make Rick Adelman just the eighth coach in NBA history to rack up 1,000 regular-season victories. Another 222 and he'll surpass Jerry Sloan as the winningest coach to never bring home a title.
Which he may or may not have the chance to do, and not because the T-Wolves are anything close to championship-caliber at the moment. Adelman's been grappling with his future in the coaching business this season amid his wife's own harrowing struggle with seizures.
Whether Adelman retires or not, he'll still go down as one of the greatest coaches of all time, albeit one whose career was ultimately marked by close calls and squandered opportunities while with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sacramento Kings and the Houston Rockets.
If not for an 88-83 loss to the Bobcats, the Philadelphia 76ers would be on a bit of a roll right now.
As it stands, their defeat in Charlotte isn't beyond forgiveness. For one, the Sixers had outlasted the 'Cats in Philly a few nights prior, thanks in no small part to an 11-point fourth quarter from Jrue Holiday.
A fourth quarter that, apparently, sapped Holiday of his will to hit shots. He was largely responsible for Philly's failure in the Tar Heel State, hitting just two of his 24 shots in what was the worst shooting display of 20 shots or more by a player all season. In fact, according to Basketball Reference, it was arguably the worst performance of its kind that the NBA has seen since at least the 1985-86 season.
Which is to say, the Sixers could claim to have won four in a row and five of six if it weren't for a historically bad hiccup by their All-Star point guard.
A brutal late-season stretch against playoff-bound teams appears to have exacted a hefty toll on the Portland Trail Blazers. Since March 6, the Blazers have played just three games against lottery teams and have lost their last six games in a row.
All against postseason opponents.
If that trend is any indication, the carnage only figures to continue in Rip City. The Blazers will play six of their final seven games against teams currently in the Western Conference playoff picture.
The lone exception? The Dallas Mavericks, who currently sit just two-and-a-half games back of the Los Angeles Lakers in the race for the eighth and final spot.
Dear Washington Wizards,
PAY JOHN WALL!
No, really. Pay the man.
Is a line of 25-5-9 with 47.7 percent shooting over his last 14 games not enough to convince you to do so?
How about the fact that the Wizards are 23-19 since his return? Had Washington won at that clip all season, the team would currently be in the mix for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Which is a heck-of-a-lot better than wherever a 5-28 record without him would land you.
Also, Bradley Beal being done for the year—just as he was coming into his own as Wall's sidekick—makes me sad.
A Curious Observer
P.S. Wizards? Really? Get that changed, will you? It's not like there's much history attached to that nickname anyway.
Maybe Ersan Ilyasova wasn't the worst signing of the summer after all.
The James Franco doppelganger blew up for 29 points, 12 rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 37 minutes during the Milwaukee Bucks' loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. That more than kept up with Ilyasova's numbers (16.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.3 steals, .491 from the field, .473 from three in 31.4 minutes) since Scott Skiles yielded his spot on the Bucks bench to Jim Boylan. Prior to Skiles' departure, the Turkish wing had managed just nine points and 5.6 rebounds in 22.8 minutes.
Methinks the coaching change made a difference. That five-year, $40 million contract doesn't look so bad anymore, now does it?
The Dallas Mavericks appeared primed to stampede their way back into the playoffs. They'd won 11 of 15 since the start of March, with Dirk Nowitzki pouring in 20 points on stellar shooting splits of .548/.468/.941 to aid the cause.
Then, they got spanked nearly every which way by the Los Angeles Lakers on national TV in a 101-81 result that all but squashed the Mavs' now-slim postseason hopes. Their lack of legitimate size next to Dirk was all too apparent, as the Lakers grabbed 20 more rebounds, shot 21 more free throws and held Dallas to 42 percent shooting from the floor on mostly low-percentage, mid-range jump shots.
The Mavs do have one factor firmly in their favor: the schedule. Their season-ending slate is far easier than those of the Utah Jazz and the Lakers, with five games against non-playoff teams yet to be decided.
Al Jefferson was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for a second time as a member of the Utah Jazz this past week, and rightfully so. Big Al averaged 19.8 points and 8.3 rebounds as the Jazz swept through five games and back into the eighth spot in the West.
But his selection was indicative of bigger picture issues in Salt Lake City that Grantland's Zach Lowe broke down in great detail; namely, that the team's defense still lags way too far behind the offense.
Jefferson has long been derided as a slow-footed defender who's too often lost in space when he's not operating in the post or shooting mid-range jumpers, but he's far from alone in that respect. The Jazz rank 21st in defensive efficiency, yielding 104.7 points per 100 possessions, 19th in opponent effective field-goal percentage (50.4 percent) and 27th in opponent free-throw rate (.302 freebies per field-goal attempt).
None of which bodes well for a squad that will have to fight tooth-and-nail to replicate last season's eighth-place finish, with games against the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies left on the calendar.
It's a good thing the Boston Celtics have already wrapped up their sixth straight playoff berth. Otherwise, injuries to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (among others) would be far more disconcerting.
As it stands, the C's don't exactly look to be streaking their way into the postseason. They've won just three of their last 10 games since mid-March and beat the Cavs and the Pistons by a combined six points.
On the bright side, Boston's remaining schedule features only two games against playoff opponents who figure to play their stars—home against the Brooklyn Nets and the Indiana Pacers. Assuming the rest of the roster doesn't wind up in street clothes, expect the Celtics to secure the seventh seed in the East and brace themselves for a first-round dance with either the New York Knicks or the Pacers.
The Los Angeles Lakers have a leg-up on the Jazz for now but must ensure that they finish with a better record than Utah at season's end. Otherwise, the Jazz's head-to-head success will take precedent, leaving L.A. out of the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
The Lakers' remaining schedule is rather brutal, too. Five of their last seven games are against Western Conference playoff teams, and though they leave Staples Center only once, that one trip is up to Portland, where the Purple and Gold tend to get stomped. It's no comfort, either, that Metta World Peace just had knee surgery or that Steve Nash's hamstrings are acting up.
But the Lakers still sport Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in their starting lineup. So long as that's the case—and so long as Kobe doesn't mind playing upwards of 47 minutes a game, as he has over the last two—the Lakers will be the front-runners to finish eighth in the West.
And invite a painful series against either the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder as a result.
You know how Grantland's Bill Simmons so often talks about Rajon Rondo as a frustrating player who usually shines on national TV? Well, could it be that the Chicago Bulls are simply Rajon Rondo in team form?
That would seem to be the case, given the way the Bulls have performed lately. They stopped the Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak dead in its tracks and, most recently, stunned the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center with no less than half of their regulars sidelined by injuries.
The three games in between? A two-point loss to the Mavs, a one-point win over the Pistons and a four-point defeat opposite the Wizards.
It's a small sample that's admittedly tough to measure in any concrete. But considering how depleted the Bulls have been all season, it would make sense that they'd get up for big games—and "relax" a bit during the others.
You'd hardly think the Atlanta Hawks were within striking distance of home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference if you started tracking them, say, three weeks ago. They haven't beaten a team with a winning record since March 17, when they toppled the Brooklyn Nets by 12 points.
Luckily for the Hawks, they'll play just two of their final six games against opponents that currently sport a record of .500 or better. That may well be enough to put Atlanta over the top...
So they can wind up in yet another 4-5 matchup before they attempt to convince Josh Smith to re-up with his hometown team this summer.
Don't look now, but the Houston Rockets are heating up again.
And at the best possible time, no less.
The Rockets have won their last three games, including an impressive 17-point smashing of the Los Angeles Clippers while James Harden was out with a foot injury. Keeping the streak alive in Portland and Denver will be no easy task.
But if Houston succeeds away from the Toyota Center in the week to come, a five-game finish against the Suns (twice), the Memphis Grizzlies, the Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers awaits.
As does a shot at overtaking the Golden State Warriors for the No. 6 seed.
The Golden State Warriors, for their part, will have to fight to keep that real estate in their sights. A trip to Phoenix and a home game against Minny are the only dates that look like anything resembling "sure things" for Stephen Curry and company right about now.
Aside from those two, the Warriors will have to fend off the Jazz and the Lakers, both of whom are grinding toward the eighth seed, and could run into some problems (to say the least) against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs if those two squads are still battling for the top spot in the West.
And if that weren't enough, Golden State will close out its season against the Blazers at the Rose Garden, where PDX's 22-14 home record figures to trump the Dubs' 17-21 mark outside of Oracle Arena.
Not that folks in the Bay Area should be too concerned. The Warriors have been playing solid ball of late, winning two out of every three games dating back to March 11.
The Brooklyn Nets have garnered some ink as a possible challenger to the Miami Heat come playoff time, though games like their 92-90 loss to the depleted Bulls should be cause for pause among those who would suggest such pseudo-heresy.
It's all well and good that Brook Lopez (28 points) and Deron Williams (30 points, 10 assists) have been playing at such a high level of late. But Joe Johnson still looks like anything but himself at the moment, and the rest of the roster is devoid of scoring options.
Unless anyone thinks Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace are capable of putting the ball in the basket with any reliability.
As a result, the Nets offense has been stagnant, at best, while the defense remains subpar as far as efficiency is concerned.
Then again, the Nets are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and are on the verge of securing home-court advantage in the playoffs following their inaugural season in Brooklyn. That certainly ain't bad, even if that's probably the ceiling for this aging, cap-strapped group going forward.
All signs point to yet another year marred by late-season turmoil for the Los Angeles Clippers.
They secured their first 50-win season in franchise history with a 126-101 win over the Suns, but not before losing four of five games, and not before notorious L.A. Times "muckraker" T.J. Simers exposed the team's emerging dysfunction, with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan at the center of it all. According to Simers, both have been whining and complaining about all manner of matters, from Vinny Del Negro's coaching to Chris Paul's "relentless" leadership style.
When, in reality, Griffin should be focused on playing through contact, Jordan should concern himself with earning his money by being more than just a big body and the team as a whole needs to get its act together if it's to do anything of note in the postseason.
If not for the New York Knicks' 10-game winning streak, the Indiana Pacers probably would've just about sewn up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference by now.
As it stands, the Pacers have been playing quite well of late, even now that they know Danny Granger won't be back in action until next season. They've come out ahead in each of their last five games and in eight of their last nine. Two more Ws, and Indy will secure its first 50-win season since 2003-04.
Of course, that's not entirely true. The Pacers won nearly 64 percent of their games last season, which comes out to about 52 victories over the course of an 82-game slate.
In any case, the Pacers deserve props for improving upon their considerable success from 2011-12, despite Granger's absence, Roy Hibbert's offensive regression and the summertime dismantling of what had been one of the league's better benches.
The Memphis Grizzlies could have a deciding hand in a number of late-season races over the course of their final seven games.
They play once against each of the three teams currently vying for the eighth seed in the West (the Lakers, the Mavs and the Jazz). They'll also face the Bobcats, who are locked in a bitter battle with the Magic for the worst record in the NBA, and the Rockets, who figure to make a run at the Warriors for the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
And then, of course, there's the not-so-small matter of Memphis' own postseason positioning, which will come into play on April 13 against the Clippers. L.A. can finish no worse than fourth on account of its likely Pacific Division crown, though that doesn't really impact the outcomes at play.
Which would have the Grizz either finishing third and taking on the Warriors or winding up fifth in a postseason rematch against the Clips in the first round.
The pieces appear to be falling into place for the New York Knicks. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith are both lighting the league ablaze, Raymond Felton is rounding back into shape (no pun intended...sort of) and Tyson Chandler is finally healthy(ish) again after suffering a neck injury.
Oh, and the Knicks are on a 10-game winning streak, which has landed them in prime position to snag the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
So long as 'Melo and J.R. keep knocking down shots and Mike Woodson can keep the whole team playing defense on a string, the Knicks should be well-positioned to win their first postseason series since 2000 and then some.
Then again, the second seed in the East would likely leave New York matched up with Boston in the first round. The C's are plenty banged up, but they know a thing or two about getting under Anthony's skin, at the very least.
First, Ty Lawson goes down with a torn plantar fascia. Now, Danilo Gallinari's out with a torn ACL? That means the Denver Nuggets will be without their top two scorers for the rest of the regular season, at the very least.
Which means we should all bury the Nuggets, right?
Not so fast. Never underestimate Denver's incredible depth and the ability of George Karl to use said depth to fill in the massive holes dug up by the injury bug. The Nuggets followed up the bad news about Lawson by beating the Nets and the Jazz by a combined 39 points, with Andre Miller filling in as the starting point guard.
Gallo went down partway through a home game throughout which the Mavs owned the lead.
That is, until Andre Iguodala drove for the winning layup after Corey Brewer and Wilson Chandler covered for Danilo with 31 total points off the bench. Those three are more than capable of picking up the slack for Gallinari going forward, with gifted rookie Evan Fournier garnering more minutes at shooting guard as a result.
The San Antonio Spurs certainly don't need the top seed in the Western Conference to make a deep playoff push, though such sweet positioning wouldn't hurt.
If the Spurs can hang onto it. A 100-88 loss to the second-place Oklahoma City Thunder shaved San Antonio's lead to a mere half-game with six to play. Only one of those six (at Denver) looks particularly daunting, though with Gregg Popovich's penchant for resting his stars and Manu Ginobili already sidelined by a bad hammy, there's no telling which Spurs squad will show up from night to night.
Then again, so long as Tim Duncan is partying like it's 2007 and Kawhi Leonard is on the fast track to stardom, the Spurs will always be in it to win it.
Even if Tony Parker lays an egg once in a while.
The Oklahoma City Thunder haven't snagged the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference since 1995-96, back when they played the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
And they were called the Seattle SuperSonics.
So, technically, the Thunder have never owned the best record in the West. A decisive April 4 win over the Spurs pulled OKC to within a half-game of its recent Conference Finals foes with a relatively favorable remaining schedule.
At least, after the Thunder go to Indiana and return home to take on a streaking New York squad.
In any case, OKC is playing solid ball down the stretch and is the only team in the NBA that ranks among the top four in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Also, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook aren't half bad, but you've probably figured that out by now.
Leave it to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to mess with Carmelo Anthony, even when they're not in uniform. Anthony exploded for a career-high-tying 50 points to lead the Knicks to their third win in four tries against the Miami Heat this season.
But the win and the scoring explosion came while James and Wade were resting in street clothes on Miami's bench. As such, what would've otherwise been an historic performance that further announced 'Melo's arrival as a winning-obsessed superstar was affixed with an asterisk (albeit a small one) because he spent the evening checked by Shane Battier rather than LeBron.
Not that Battier isn't a superb and fully capable defender in his own right, but...well, he's no LeBron.
Moral of the story: The Heat always win, even when they don't.