As the league's best prepare to shine in the Big Easy, the trade deadline approaches, and the majority of franchises gear for their stretch runs.
Now is a time to take a peek in the crystal ball at the fortunes of your favorite team.
In this first installment, we look at the NBA's Eastern—Leastern for most pundits—Conference. With KG crossing borders, the emergence of recent No. 1 draft picks LeBron James and Dwight Howard, the stalwart Pistons squad, and the up and coming Chicago Bulls, the East was figured to level the playing field in the Association dominated by the West for the past decade.
The Celtics' rise to the top however, has not spelled success for the rest of the conference.
Right now the East holds just six teams above the .500 mark. Despite the futility, the competition is still stiff as seven teams are within two-and-a-half games of one another with just two spots to fill.
With no further hesitation, let's take a stab at what may develop as the teams in the East hit their stride.
15. Miami Heat (Currently 9-35, Projected Finish 17-65)
Have we ever seen a fall of that compares to this?
The disappointment on South Beach grows every day as the Heat struggle with injuries and underachievement. While trading perennial headache Antoine Walker the Heat acquired another in the form of Ricky Davis. Injuries to Wade, Shaq, and Mourning's career-ender have hampered Miami all year.
Despite Wade returning to form and O'Neal expected to return, I don't see any improvement from the Heat, and they will find themselves with a great shot at Michael Beasley in the summer's draft.
14. Charlotte Bobcats (Currently 18-28, Projected Finish 28-54)
While it seemed the Bobcats had struck gold in landing Jason Richardson on draft day, Charlotte has had to endure a very talented team that can't seem to get over the hump.
Richardson, along with Gerald Wallace, has been able to carry the team offensively on most nights, but the results have not shown in the box scores.
With 23 of their 36 remaining games coming on the road, including 16 against the Western Conference, the Bobcats figure to have a tough finish to a tough season.
13. Philadelphia 76ers (Currently 18-28, Projected Finish 28-54)
After trading A.I. last year the Sixers felt comfortable with their second coming of A.I. However, Andre Iguodala has proven he only excels as his teams second option. In his first season without Iverson, Iguodala has regressed as he tries to shoulder the load in Philly. As the deadline approaches it will be interesting to see if the Sixers can find a suitor for point guard Andre Miller.
Philadelphia should find themselves playing meaningless games within the next few weeks, which could spell extended minutes for youngsters Louis Williams and Thaddeus Young.
12. New York Knicks (Currently 14-31, Projected 30-52)
I wasn't hitting any pipes while making these projections. The Knicks are a team full of talented players.
The frontcourt with Eddy Curry, Zach Randolph, and the underrated David Lee, provide a rebounding presence. Outside shooters Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford, and Quentin Richardson have the ability to take over games.
With a favorable schedule down the stretch, featuring only one extended road-trip, the Knicks could easily prove to be a .500 basketball team to finish the season.
11. New Jersey Nets (Currently 19-26, Projected 31-51)
If the Nets front office hasn't found the panic button yet, now is the time.
Coming off a nine-game losing streak, Jason Kidd's trade demands, and Vince Carter's declining stats, a franchise once the class of the East now finds themselves preparing for a rebuild. Rumors are running rampant and the biggest has Kidd returning the the Dallas team that drafted him.
If the trigger is pulled on a deal, it's hard to believe Carter won't go back to his lackluster mentality as the Nets continue to slide. This offseason they could rebuild around young talent in Sean Williams, Josh Boone, and Marcus Williams
10. Milwaukee Bucks (Currently 18-29, Projected 32-50)
Buried in the Cheesehead state, Milwaukee is probably the most talented team you don't know about. Despite Yi Jianlian's up and down rookie year, Andrew Bogut has found his niche, averaging 13 points, 9 rebounds, and nearly 2 blocks a game.
Coupled with Michael Redd's sharpshooting and Mo Williams' emergence as one of the league's most underrated point guards, the Bucks have the nucleus in place to establish themselves in a very strong division over the next couple years.
Although the Bucks have a favorable schedule down the stretch, playing 21 of their remaning 35 at home, I think games such as their 112-69 loss to the Sixers Wednesday night happen too often for Milwaukee to overcome their road woes for a playoff push this season.
9. Atlanta Hawks (Currently 18-24, Projected 34-48)
I really hope I am wrong and the Hawks do not miss out on the playoffs by a single game. The biggest reason being the replay that will take place against the Heat.
This team reminds me of last year's version of the Los Angeles Clippers: a franchise mired in futility begins to come around. With the enigmatic Josh Smith leading the way, alongside proven scorer Joe Johnson, Atlanta has developed into one of the league's young and exciting teams.
With a six-game road trip after the All-Star break and 13 games remaining against the West, the Hawks will struggle to keep pace with the rest of the East. However, it will be interesting to see if the Hawks can pull off a deal for a proven point man, Andre Miller perhaps, to improve their chances.
8. Indiana Pacers (Currently 19-27, Projected 35-47)
If you haven't had the chance to tune-in to a Pacers game this season you're missing out. Jim O'Brien has transformed Indiana into the Eastern Conference's equivalent of the Warriors or Suns.
The Pacers get out and run every night, performing well on the offensive end of the floor with Jamaal Tinsley orchestrating the offense. Mike Dunleavy is finally proving he was worthy of a 3rd overall pick by the Warriors, and Danny Granger is developing into a star across the board.
If Jermaine O'Neal can return from injury in his previous form, I feel the Pacers will be able to hang on to the East's final spot and create a very tough matchup for their first round opponent.
7. Chicago Bulls (Currently 18-27, Projected 37-45)
I took entirely too much time disputing whether the Pacers or Bulls would secure the East's final playoff position.
All logical signs point Indiana—three more home games, four less against the West, the Bulls' current road trip and four of five on the road after the All-Star break. With Scott Skiles recently admitting he simply could not get through to this team, questions arise over the Bulls' desire to win.
Deng and Gordon have turned down extensions. Kirk Hinrich, poised for a breakout season, has regressed significantly. Ben Wallace is a shell of himself as a Piston.
With all of that being said, I simply see no way a team this talented from top to bottom can miss out on the playoffs. April holds two matchups against Cleveland and Orlando, and a home meeting with Boston. These games could make or break the Bulls' chances of being a lethal matchup in the first round in this year's playoffs.
6. Washington Wizards (Currently 24-20, Projected 42-40)
When Gilbert Arenas' season was cut short last year, it spelled disaster for the Wizards. They limped through the remainder of the regular season and a quick dismissal in the first round.
As Arenas opted for surgery early this season, it appeared the Wizards would succumb to the same fate. However, in Gilbert's absence, the Wiz have rallied around the rest of their lineup, most notably Caron Butler.
Butler, alongside underrated Antawn Jamison, has developed into a bona fide superstar, carrying his team at both ends of the floor. With Arenas working towards a return, it will be interesting to see how seamlessly he can return to the Wizards while the team maintains their success against a very tough schedule down the stretch.
5. Toronto Raptors (Currently 25-20, Projected 48-34)
The work that Bryan Colangelo has done with this team is nothing short of amazing. From Chris Bosh all the way down, the team has been put together in a mold that could make them one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs.
Despite a tough schedule that includes a five-game west-coast swing, the Raptors should be able to ride the emergence of Jose Calderon, with the performance of role players Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Carlos Delfino, and Andrea Bargnani to a comfortable position in the middle of the Eastern playoff picture
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (Currently 25-20, Projected 50-32)
Early on this season all of the questions were revolving around what's wrong with the Cavs.
The defending Eastern Conference champions struggled out of the gate. But after enduring a LeBron injury, they seem to be coming around as a force in the Central Division.
The end of Anderson Varejao's holdout, coupled with performances by Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Daniel Gibson have propelled Cleveland into contention for a home matchup in the first round of the playoffs. With 21 of their remaining 37 at home and the team coming into last season's form, King James and the Cavs could create headaches for other teams come April.
3. Orlando Magic (Currently 29-18, Projected 52-30)
After storming out of the gates quickly in November the Magic have cooled, but still hold firm as one of the East's top teams.
Dwight Howard continues to prove the Magic made the correct choice taking him first overall in 2004. The double-double machine, along with sharpshooters Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, have Orlando primed to take the next step forward in the Eastern Conference.
A favorable schedule should allow Orlando to hold off Washington in the Southeast. It will be a story to follow if Jameer Nelson can stay healthy and adequately run the point for Orlando come playoff time.
2. Detroit Pistons (Currently 33-13, Projected 60-22)
After a nailbiter against the Lakers Thursday night, capped by Tayshaun Prince's game winner, the Pistons sit comfortably atop the Central Division.
The story has not changed for the boys from Motown as the starting five has been their same old selves night in and night out. The Pistons don't do it with style, but compete every night for the win. The emergence of bench players Jason Maxiell, Rodney Stuckey, Jarvis Hayes, and Aaron Afflalo has created an interesting storyline as the Pistons look to contend for their second title this decade.
Twenty-one of thirty-six at home, including two, five-game home stands should have the Pistons primed for a strong finish to the regular season and another extended playoff run.
1. Boston Celtics (Currently 36-8, Projected 63-19)
There is nothing that can be written about Boston that we haven't heard already.
Early on in the season the Big Three of the Celtics were playing extended minutes. Critics worried about Boston's aging stars holding up throughout the season.
With help from blowout victories and improving performances from Glen Davis, Leon Powe, and Rajon Rondo, each of the three have seen decreased minutes that should go a long way in April and May. 21 road games down the stretch should test the Celtics just in time for the playoffs. I see the Celts slipping as they play teams embedded in playoff races. Balancing the rest of their starters should slow Boston's pace throughout the final few months.
That being said expect Doc Rivers to have his team ready as the season come to a close to give Boston title number seventeen.
Stay tuned for the projections for the Western Conference, which will need revisions as I read into the Lakers adding a HUGE piece to their equation.