With the basketball bombast of All-Star Weekend now squarely in the rear-view mirror, the eyes of the NBA world turn to the two conferences' respective playoff races.
Who will rise, who will fall and who will put themselves in the best positions to survive and advance come spring?
That the Western Conference boasts more genuine contenders and overall depth practically goes without saying: Of the 10 best records in the NBA, eight belong to teams from the West.
The East might be the weaker of the two, but that doesn’t make the race for seeding any less compelling. Today, we predict how each of the conference’s playoff spots will shake out down the stretch, starting with the No. 8 seed and working our way up to the cream of the conference crop.
Note: All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of February 17, unless otherwise stated.
On paper, the Knicks have the toughest row to hoe of any of the Eastern Conference hopefuls: Of the team’s 30 remaining games, 19 will be played away from Madison Square Garden's not-so-friendly confines, where the Knicks are a putrid 12-18 thus far this season.
There aren't many looking to buy Knicks stock these days, but Metta World Peace, speaking with ESPN radio (via the New York Post's Fred Kerber), certainly sounds like one of them:
“I didn’t picture this. I was very optimistic. A championship level team was on my mind,” World Peace said Monday on ESPN Radio. “I still believe we have championship-level players... We are good enough to make the playoffs. I believe the team has what it takes. Sometimes you can start off on the wrong foot but it can end up well, and we still have the capabilities to win a championship. These players are more than capable.”
Without their 2014 draft pick (given up in the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade), New York knows that missing the playoffs would be seen by both fans and ownership as an unmitigated disaster.
Expect Melo—who, according to the folks at CBS New York, intimated he’d take a pay cut to help his team build a contender—to put the franchise on his back. Even if it means playing 40-plus minutes a night.
The Hawks hit the skids heading into the All-Star break, dropping five straight—the last two by an average of 18 points.
Still, the job first-year coach Mike Budenholzer has done with limited talent—and without All-Star forward Al Horford, who suffered a season-ending pectoral injury on December 27—cannot be discounted. The Hawks lead the NBA in overall assist ratio (19.3), helping turn an otherwise milquetoast offense into a sturdy, steady attack capable of eking out a W on any given night.
Atlanta’s relative youth and inexperience could well make for a slight tumble down the standings, but not enough to put them out of the picture completely.
Just when you think the Bulls have been beaten and battered beyond redemption, Tom Thibodeau snaps the reins in just the right way to hasten his horses forward.
Chicago’s performance thus far has been a portrait of extremes: The Bulls rank dead last in points per game (92.3), 28th in pace (98) and 28th in offensive efficiency, but second in points allowed (92.3) and defensive efficiency (97.8).
The good news: It’s the same template they used en route to an unlikely first-round upset of the Brooklyn Nets in last year’s playoffs.
The bad news: Half of the team might disintegrate before they even get there.
The following chart depicts Toronto’s performance across a bevy of categories, the span of which is bifurcated by one particular event. Can you guess what that event is?
If you said, “the Rudy Gay trade,” congratulations! You win…an Art Garfunkel Chia Pet.
Art Garfunkel jokes aside, the Raptors have been a different team since trading the struggling Gay back on December 9. Free of their wing logjam, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have been allowed—and have allowed one another—to flourish.
With six of their first eight post-break games coming at the Air Canada Centre, expect the Raptors to continue making hay in the weak East. A slight regression is likely, but don’t be surprised if the plucky Raptors maneuver their way into the East’s upper echelon.
If you’re looking for a second-half sleeper, the Wizards meet just about all of the criteria: a young team loaded with talent that plays tenacious defense and boasts one of the game’s hungriest young stars—John Wall—at its most important position.
According to PlayoffStatus.com, the Wizards rank first in ease of schedule heading into the home stretch.
The New Orleans Pelicans, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks: The Wizards get all of them in their first 10 games starting on Tuesday—exactly the kind of soft stretch on which a young team like the Wizards can feast.
After a disastrous 5-14 start to the season, the Nets have clawed their way back into three games below .500 and smack dab in the middle of the East playoff race.
Even more impressive, they’ve done so without All-Star center Brook Lopez, who suffered a season-ending foot injury back in December.
How have they done it? With a combination of improved depth, roster familiarity and veteran leadership—the record-breaking price for which owner Mikhail Prokhorov is no doubt demanding results.
Whether the Nets can stay healthy will be of the utmost importance in relation to how much damage they can do in April, when—if this seeding shakes out as predicted—they’ll meet the team that unceremoniously ousted them a season ago: the Chicago Bulls.
Heading into the 1998 All-Star break, the two-time defending champion Chicago Bulls were 34-15—a somewhat pedestrian record given the decisive dominance that underscored the team's previous pair of postseason runs.
This year’s two-time defending champion Miami Heat: 37-14.
The eras and the stars might be different, but the questions are much the same: Can the champs afford to coast, and for how long?
Indeed, if Sunday’s All-Star Game was any kind of bellwether, Kevin Durant’s exploits are ratcheting up toward a singular, incendiary finale: dethroning the champs.
And that’s not even taking into account the team at the top of the East heap.
After bowing out to Miami in a bone-crunching six-game series a season ago, the Pacers shot out of the gate with all of the speed and power of their namesake dragster.
Leveraging a combination of the league’s best defense (registering a cartoonish efficiency of 93.6) and the jaw-dropping ascent of Paul George—and, to a lesser but still impressive extent, Lance Stephenson—the Pacers have served serious notice that this year’s model is ripe for a checkered flag.
Standing in their way? None other than the best basketball player on the planet.
George might not be at LeBron’s level, but if there’s one constant with so many champions of years and decades past, it’s that a top-tier defense can hassle and harangue even the most lauded of legends.
Despite an outwardly awkward roster makeup, the Mavs have somehow managed to stay afloat in an uber-competitive West.
The key to Dallas’ success is the renaissance of Dirk Nowitzki, who is on pace to register his highest player-efficiency rating (24.5) since the 2007-08 season.
If the Mavs can somehow survive a tough next three weeks, they could use an eight-game home stand starting on March 17 to help bolster their record and keep their postseason hopes alive.
Given the preseason predictions of many, crashing the playoff party in one of their conference’s most competitive seasons to date would go down as an impressive accomplishment for this Island of Misfit Toys—even if it means a quick four-game sweep at the hands of No. 1 seed.
The Grizzlies are 12-4 since the return of Marc Gasol, who missed nearly two months with a sprained knee.
In that span, the Grizzlies have gotten back to their defensive roots, tallying a league-best 95.3 defensive efficiency over 16 games.
And while their offense remains an unpredictable adventure, Mike Conley’s career year has given Memphis the kind of steady, sturdy hand that becomes indispensable in the playoffs.
Assuming Memphis weathers Gasol’s recent setback—a knee tweak suffered during the team’s 86-81 win over the Magic last Wednesday—the Grizzlies have more than enough firepower and roster continuity to grit and grind their way back above the conference fold.
Bar none, the Blazers were the feel-good story of the season’s first half. Buoyed by head coach Terry Stotts’ pass-happy, free-flowing offense, Portland made the leap from plucky, potential-laden upstarts to legitimate conference threat seemingly overnight.
In LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, the Blazers have one of the league’s most exciting and formidable young cores—a sweet-shooting quartet that forces teams to perpetually pick their poison.
But if the season’s second half is about adjustments, expect Portland’s West rivals—who were maybe caught off guard a bit the first few times around—to conjure ways of more regularly taking Portland out of their freewheeling flow.
Expectations were high for the Ws heading into this season. And rightly so: In adding veteran vise grip Andre Iguodala to a core built around the sweet-shooting Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Mark Jackson and company were lauded for actively addressing their one glaring need.
But after an end-of-year stretch that saw them rattle off 10 consecutive wins, Golden State has resorted to treading water, having gone 7-9 over its past 16 games.
Chalk this one up to a mild case of winter doldrums. The Warriors proved last year they had the firepower to make life miserable for even the well-seasoned San Antonio Spurs. With another year of wisdom and experience behind them, the Warriors have just the kind of pedigree to sneak their way into the conference finals.
No team in the NBA is entering the season’s stretch run on a more torrid clip than the Rockets, who peeled off seven straight wins heading into the All-Star break.
In many ways, Houston has become—statistically speaking—what many thought the Warriors would be: Houston is currently fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency (107.7), third in true-shooting percentage (57 percent) and fourth in field-goal percentage (47.5 percent).
Still, issues remain: Their point guard play has been inconsistent at best, as evidenced by a league-worst assist-to-turnover ratio (1.25) and 26th-ranked assist ratio (15.8).
If the Rockets have any hope of weathering the demands of playoff basketball—where possessions are put at a premium—they’ll need an offense that doesn’t always depend on the freelancing abilities of James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons.
The consistent excellence with which the Spurs have continually carved their way to the Western Conference’s cream has always been extraordinary.
This year? You can almost call it miraculous.
Despite a slew of setbacks for his team’s core—Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili have all missed time due to either injury or minutes restrictions—Gregg Popovich has once again served serious notice that the system always trumps the constitutive parts.
How Popovich strikes a balance between seeding on the one hand—and the matchups dictated thereby—and rest for his veterans on the other will go a long way in determining whether the Spurs can duplicate last year’s magic.
By going 12-6 in their 18 games without Chris Paul—sidelined for over a month with a sprained shoulder—the Clippers weathered the kind of storm that would’ve sent a weaker team careening down the standings.
And just in the nick of time: With the Spurs, Grizzlies, Thunder and Rockets all on the docket over the next 10 days, having the league’s best point guard is about to become indispensable.
The Clippers have one of the tougher home stretches of any Western Conference team. Luckily, they also have one of the NBA’s best one-two tandems, along with a coach in Doc Rivers who knows a little something about getting his troops ready for the playoff trenches.
Shocking, we know.
Beginning with Thursday’s date with the Heat, the Thunder will attempt to serve formal, final notice that the road to the Larry O’Brien Trophy runs through Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Kevin Durant made it clear that one of his goals for last weekend’s All-Star Game was to take it right at LeBron James, and this week’s marquee matchup will be no different. Durant has played this season with an asteroid-sized chip on his shoulder—the angry burden of a basketball genius so often overshadowed by the King’s singular genius.
Luckily, according to Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears, KD might soon be welcoming back his second-in-command:
The Thunder announced on Dec. 27 that Westbrook had surgery on his right knee for the second time since late October. He was projected to be out until after the NBA All-Star break without a specific return game. The source said Westbrook will be re-evaluated on Tuesday in Oklahoma City, which could open the door for a return against the visiting Heat.
With Russell Westbrook back in the fold sooner than most expected, the Thunder should have more than enough time to recalibrate their chemistry. The hope being that, with enough momentum, not even the two-time champs will be able to survive OKC’s final ascent.