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Why Your Favorite NBA Team Won't Win the Title: March Edition

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterMarch 3, 2016

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James waits for action to resume in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The NBA has officially entered the dog days of the 2015-16 season. While the pros recover from their All-Star break hangovers to slog through the league's stretch run, the nation turns its lonely eyes to the collegiate ranks, where the NCAA tournament is due to tip off as soon as all of the conference championships have been decided.

But, really, why should March Madness be limited to the kids? Isn't there some way to suffuse those playing basketball for beaucoup bucks with the same spirit that captures the hearts and minds of all those teens and 20-somethings competing for peanuts—let alone the legions of students, alumni, bracket busters and degenerate gamblers alike who follow the NCAA's (inferior) product so feverishly?

To that end, we'll do our part to bring the joie de vivre of college hoops into the Association, albeit in a small way. After a brief hiatus from trolling our way 'round the league, we've returned with a vengeance in March—and with categories for teams befitting the basketball frenzy to come.

March Sadness

Philadelphia 76ers

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 23: Jahlil Okafor #8 and Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers watch the game against the Orlando Magic from the bench on February 23, 2016 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Magic defeated the 76e
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The Philadelphia 76ers' defensive improvement was once the saving grace of the organization's debacle of a rebuild. Now, it looks like just another drop in Philly's bucket of awful.

The Sixers have languished among the league's bottom-10 defenses all season but have been even worse than that since parting ways with JaKarr Sampson, arguably their best perimeter defender. As NBA.com's David Aldridge put it, "To call the Sixers' defense (117 points allowed in four games last week) a sieve is an insult to hard-working sieves around the world."

It doesn't help that head coach Brett Brown has found the pairing of Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel "far more challenging than I anticipated," per the Associated Press' Dan Gelston. According to NBA.com, the Sixers have given up 109.1 points per 100 possessions when they play together, as opposed to 108.8 when Okafor goes solo and 101.1 when Noel goes it alone.

Los Angeles Lakers

Are Byron Scott's head games finally paying off? Or is D'Angelo Russell finding his way despite his coach's tactics?

"I like pushing buttons," Scott said, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina, after watching Russell torch the Brooklyn Nets for 39 points to propel the Los Angeles Lakers to a 107-101 win on Tuesday. "I like messing with young guys. It’s fun. I like to see what they can do and how much they can take. I want to see if they will accept the challenge or not. I’ll do it in a playful way, but I’m still trying to find out what they’re made of."

Scott's search for his players' sore spots could pay off in the long run. For now, though, it hasn't done much to help the Lakers (12-49) avoid setting a new franchise low for wins in a season; the previous mark is 19, held by the 1957-58 Minneapolis Lakers.

Phoenix Suns

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 01:  Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns is trapped by teammates Cody Zeller #40 and Courtney Lee #1 of the Charlotte Hornets during their game at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 1, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER:
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

On Dec. 7, the Phoenix Suns beat the Bulls in Chicago, 103-101, behind 21 points from Brandon Knight, 16 from Eric Bledsoe and diddly squat from the disgruntled Markieff Morris.

Since then, Bledsoe suffered another season-ending knee injury, Knight went down with a sports hernia, Morris was traded to Washington, and head coach Jeff Hornacek was canned.

Oh, and Phoenix has lost 16 road games in a row by an average of more than 21 points. That includes a 40-point clobbering against the Los Angeles Clippers and a 34-point defeat in Charlotte.

The Suns' road woes are entirely predictable, given the tumult of their campaign. So, too, is the practical certainty that Phoenix will miss the playoffs for a franchise-worst sixth straight year.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been busy cutting ties with veterans. First, they bought out Andre Miller, then they did the same for Kevin Martin. Miller's already landed with San Antonio, and Martin could follow him there in short order, per ESPN's Marc Stein.

Neither player did much to move the needle in Minneapolis. Miller served as a mentor for the team's young point guards while racking up 32 DNPs. Martin battled a wrist injury while watching Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad assume his minutes and shots.

But typically, veterans don't leave contenders; they join them. Clearly, the T-Wolves (19-41) aren't close, though they'll still have Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince around to tutor the Timberpups as the late Flip Saunders envisioned.

Brooklyn Nets

It didn't take long for Joe Johnson to turn back the hands of time. In his first two games with the Miami Heat, Johnson totaled 36 points on 15-of-23 shooting with eight rebounds and seven assists.

That doesn't speak so well of the Brooklyn Nets, who saw the former All-Star score in single digits 22 times and shoot 40.7 percent from the floor in 57 games games prior to being bought out.

Not that Johnson has any hard feelings toward Brooklyn. As he told ESPN's Mike Mazzeo:

I had some great times -- from my first year (2012-13) with Avery (Johnson) to this year with Tony (Brown). Obviously we had our ups and downs, but I think the good outweighed the bad for me. ... I think the changing of the GM and coach (this year) was pretty tough, but not really. I had quite a few coaches during my tenure in Brooklyn so it was kind of second nature for me, but just losing, us playing hard and losing was probably the toughest thing for me.

Now, Johnson will get to extend his personal playoff streak into a ninth year while the Nets careen toward a tough offseason with Bojan Bogdanovic and Wayne Ellington manning the wings.

At least new general manager Sean Marks will have plenty of time to learn the Nets don't play in New Jersey anymore.

Denver Nuggets

Feb 26, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari (8) is helped into the locker room after getting injured during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever slim hopes the Denver Nuggets had of crashing the postseason party way ahead of schedule went out the window when Danilo Gallinari's ankle gave way in Dallas. Denver will be without its leading scorer indefinitely after he tore two ligaments in his right ankle.

"It's worse than the one I had just two months ago," Gallinari said, per ESPN. That injury cost Gallo six games, from which point on he averaged 21.9 points.

As ESPN's Zach Lowe lamented, it's another bad break in what's turned out to be a snakebitten run for the Rooster:

This dude has had the strangest, twistiest career. He was rolling through 2016 as Denver's best player, gaining speed and strength after years on the mend, before tearing two ligaments in his ankle last week.

Now, the Nuggets will press on with JaKarr Sampson, formerly of Sixers fame, standing in for their No. 1 option on offense. No matter what Sampson does, Gallo and his Mad Max haircut will be missed.

Prayin' for the Play-In

Chicago Bulls

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 27: Head coach Fred Hoiberg of the Chicago Bulls questions a call during a game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the United Center on February 27, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Trail Blazers defeated the Bulls 103-95. NOTE TO
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Defense is no longer the calling card it used to be for the Chicago Bulls. Where once Chicago regularly ranked among the top eight in defensive efficiency under Tom Thibodeau, the team now stands 12th with Fred Hoiberg—and it is dropping fast.

The Bulls have surrendered 100 or more points in each of their last four outings. That includes the 129 points on 67.5 percent shooting—the highest field-goal percentage allowed by Chicago since the NBA started keeping track of that stat in 1983-84—the team surrendered to the Miami Heat on Tuesday.

Since the Bulls started giving up triple digits on the regular at the end of January, they've sported the league's sixth-leakiest defense, ahead of only the Sixers, Kings, Suns, Timberwolves and Lakers. And, like those five bottom-feeders, Chicago sits on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

"We got to start hitting bodies and being a little more physical, a lot more physical defensively because teams shooting 67 percent from the field, I think that's pretty outrageous," Pau Gasol said after the Bulls' porous effort in Miami, per ESPN's Nick Friedell. "And it's something we should be aware of and it's something we should correct immediately."

Otherwise, it's back to the lottery for the Bulls for the first time since 2008, when they snagged Derrick Rose at No. 1.

Orlando Magic

The Bulls aren't the only team on the fringes of the East's postseason race with gaping holes to fill on defense. The Magic have also been getting mauled since the All-Star break—and not just by Stephen Curry, who torched them for 51 points in Orlando last week.

"We gave up a high field-goal percentage against Indiana, Philly and now again [Thursday night]," head coach Scott Skiles lamented the day after the loss to Golden State, per the Orlando Sentinel's Brian Schmitz. "It's very hard to, say, be a top five defensive-field-goal percentage team. One of the things we're trying to impress upon our guys is it's hard, but it's worth it if you'll commit to it and do it."

That commitment has been slow to come for Skiles' young squad. On the whole, the Magic sit 16th in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com. But since swapping out Tobias Harris for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova, they've slipped to 21st, allowing 108.8 points per 100 possessions.

Such poor defense won't cut it for Orlando; not with three teams standing between this group and the franchise's first playoff spot since Dwight Howard was last seen in the Magic Kingdom.

Utah Jazz

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Good luck to the Utah Jazz if they plan to back their way into the Western Conference playoffs. They've lost three in a row and six of eight to slip into ninth place out West.

The going won't get any easier for Utah, either. The team plays 10 of its next 14 games on the road—where the Jazz have gone 9-19 this season—including stops in Toronto, Memphis and New Orleans on its current trip.

"We got to find a way to pick ourselves up," Gordon Hayward said after a 100-95 loss in Boston, per the Associated Press. "We got three more tough games on this trip. Tonight was one where we felt like we were in control early, but just couldn't get stops."

That's not a good sign for a squad that boasts arguably the best rim protector in the game in Rudy Gobert alongside another stellar defender in Derrick Favors.

Milwaukee Bucks

In the big picture, it's not a good sign when a team starts winning after moving key members of its core to the bench.

That's what's happened for the Milwaukee Bucks. The team has won five of eight since shifting last season's trade-deadline acquisition (Michael Carter-Williams) and last summer's big signing (Greg Monroe) to the bench in favor of O.J. Mayo and Miles Plumlee.

"I thought I would be successful here," Monroe told The Vertical's Chris Mannix. "I still can. There is a lot of time left."

Not much this season, though. As of March 1, Milwaukee was six games back of a playoff spot, with 22 to play and four teams to leapfrog.

Perhaps the Bucks, who've regressed on defense this season, would've been better off trading for Dwight Howard. Team announcer Gus Johnson revealed Howard was interested in moving to Milwaukee had the team acquired him at the trade deadline.

Rob Perez @World_Wide_Wob

Gus Johnson says on-air that Dwight Howard told him "I wanted to come to Milwaukee during trade the deadline." https://t.co/wFeTuBoMRz

Sacramento Kings

Groundhog Day was last month, but don't tell that to the Sacramento Kings.

Like clockwork, this talented team is once again descending into backdoor bickering, coaching qualms and a lack of composure on the court. During a 131-116 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, Sacramento ceded (among other things) seven free points—two on technicals, four on delay-of-game calls and another on a clear path foul.

"That’s lovely," Kevin Durant said after the game, per CSNBayArea.com's James Ham. "That’s like Christmas. You know coming in here this team, they have a little hot head, so you know at some point you’re going to get free points."

For the Kings, those points are anything but free. With each untimely eruption, Sacramento creeps closer to its 10th straight trip to the draft lottery.

"We’re not worthy of it, we’re not worthy of the playoffs right now, I think," Omri Casspi said, per CSNBayArea.com.

Chances are, he's not the only one in California's capital who feels that way.

 

New York Knicks

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 01:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks reacts after he missed a shot in the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Madison Square Garden on March 1, 2016 in New York City.The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the New
Elsa/Getty Images

Contrary to convention, the customer isn't always right, but New York Knicks fans might be. While the team was getting spanked by the Portland Trail Blazers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, 104-85, one patron took time to complain about New York's ineptitude to Carmelo Anthony.

"He kept calling my name, calling my name, saying 'You guys suck, you guys suck,'" Anthony said, per the New York Daily News' Frank Isola. "At that point I was trying to gather myself and I turned around, all I did was point at [James] Dolan and told him, 'Look, the owner’s right there. Ask for your money back.'"

That could be the start of a sad trend at MSG. The Knicks have dropped 14 of 17 since they last reached the .500 mark, with only wins over the Magic and Suns to sustain the home crowd over that span.

Melo has apologized for the interaction, but he may be better off saving his remaining mea culpas for when the Knicks surrender their lottery pick to the Nuggets as recompense for bringing Anthony to the Big Apple in 2011. 

New Orleans Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans have picked up enough injuries to fill both a first and second line through the French Quarter, not to mention cap a disappointing season with a trip to the lottery.

Bryce Dejean-Jones recently joined Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter on the list of those lost for the season. Anthony Davis is battling a toe injury, while Omer Asik remains sidelined by a bum ankle.

As the Brow told NBA.com's David Aldridge, the rest of the 2015-16 season is about more than just sneaking into the playoffs:

We just want to establish a culture with the way that we play, the style we're going to play, try to move forward. We know that we've got guys hurt, and these guys will be back. When they come back, we've just got to keep moving forward, keep getting better. Whether we make the playoffs or not, we've got to establish a culture and an environment that we've got to have for seasons to come.

For the West's 11th-place team, that may be a more realistic (and useful) goal than gunning for another first-round ouster at the hands of the Warriors.

Slow Dancing in a Burning Room

Washington Wizards

Feb 26, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Washington Wizards head coach Randy Wittman reacts to a foul call in front of referee David Jones (36) during the second half against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center. The Washington Wizards won 103-94. Man
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Wizards are back within striking distance of a playoff spot thanks to John Wall's wizardry and a roster that's finally getting healthy. Meanwhile, head coach Randy Wittman is still as curmudgeonly as ever when it comes the numbers that have taken over the NBA. As he told ESPN 980's Kevin Sheehan, per the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg:

I’ve got to coach the team. Analytics haven’t won a ballgame. You’ve got to take what you have and put guys in position that they can best succeed at. And there are some things with numbers that help that, but if you see some of the number sheets that we have, it would drive you crazy. But you know what, that’s the world we live in. You can fight that, but that does you no good. Listen, I’ve been in the business 32 years now. We had analytics back in the ’80s, alright? We had numbers. Plus-minus, and guys playing with certain guys, and that’s never changed. It’s just now, for whatever reason … Hey, it’s good for some people. Because guys have gotten a lot of jobs because that of word.

Wittman went on to explain that Washington's pivot toward small ball was more the result of a thinning frontcourt, with Kevin Seraphin now in New York, than anything purely stat-driven. Still, in today's NBA, with teams like the Warriors, Spurs and Cavaliers running amok, can a team compete with the elite when its coach might be stuck in the Stone Age?

Detroit Pistons

The Detroit Pistons have started to hit their stride with Tobias Harris in tow. Since inserting Harris into the starting lineup, Stan Van Gundy's squad has reeled off four wins in a row, including impressive efforts in Cleveland and at home against Toronto, to climb into the East's playoff picture.

Toppling those two in a seven-game series will be another story for the Pistons this spring. In truth, this team's dreams of title contention will hinge not on what happens in March, April and May, but rather on whatever Van Gundy can do to upgrade the roster in June, July and August.

To that end, Detroit's voiding of the trade that would've brought in Donatas Motiejunas from Houston could come back to bite the organization. According to MLive's Brendan Savage, though, Van Gundy has denied the decision to rescind the deal was due to the team having second thoughts, instead claiming he thought it was "too risky" after Motiejunas failed a medical examination.

In the meantime, Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton, the other piece from that trade, could haunt the Pistons with their contributions elsewhere—the former's in Houston; the latter's wherever he lands after being bought out by the Rockets.

Indiana Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 26: Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers reacts after being knocked down while shooting against the Charlotte Hornets in the second half of the game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on February 26, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

At times, like when they beat the Thunder in OKC after the All-Star break, the Indiana Pacers look like a burgeoning Eastern Conference powerhouse. At others, like during their current three-game skid, they look to be shy of contention, albeit with the talent to do so in the years to come.

"We’ve been saying it all year, especially after the All-Star break, that we’ve got to make a push and separate ourselves," Paul George told the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner. "We’ve yet to do so."

It may be a while before they do. After visiting Milwaukee on Wednesday, the Pacers will play four of their next five on the road, with only a home game against the Spurs to break up the travel. By that time, Indy, tied for seventh in the East with Detroit as of March 1, could find Chicago or Washington, its opponent in D.C. on Saturday, in its playoff spot.

Charlotte Hornets

The Charlotte Hornets did well to pick up Courtney Lee at the trade deadline. And now that Al Jefferson is back in action, Charlotte has no shortage of offensive weapons.

The team's defense, on the other hand, could be an issue in the playoffs. Without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who's done for the year after re-injuring his shoulder, the Hornets sport just one perimeter defender (Nicolas Batum) capable of handling the likes of LeBron James, Paul George, Dwyane Wade and DeMar DeRozan on the wings in the Eastern Conference.

That deficiency came back to bite Charlotte during a recent 114-103 loss in Cleveland, wherein James, Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith combined to burn the Hornets for 62 points.

Houston Rockets

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets rid themselves of Ty Lawson, who proved to be a poor fit both on and off the court from Day 1. It's only fitting, then, that Houston is due to replace him with another not-so-model citizen in Michael Beasley, per ESPN's Marc Stein.

And not just any Michael Beasley, but newly minted Chinese Basketball Association foreign MVP Michael Beasley.

The Rockets have done well with CBA stars before. They went to the playoffs five times during the eight seasons Yao Ming spent in Houston.

Yao, though, was a stud whose NBA career was undone by foot injuries. Beasley, on the other hand, is a journeyman better known for off-court transgressions and being the No. 2 pick behind Derrick Rose in 2008 than anything he's accomplished in uniform.

In that case, he may be just what the Rockets' soap opera needs: another wild card.

Or not.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies have won five of seven games since Marc Gasol went down with a season-ending foot injury, so they must be fine without him...right?

Don't jump to conclusions just yet, folks. Those five wins have come against the Nets, Timberwolves, Lakers (twice) and Nuggets—a veritable Murderer's Row, if by "Murderer's Row" you mean teams that have been getting murdered on the court this season.

Memphis' losses sans Gasol are more telling. The first was a 13-point thumping in Toronto, during which the zombified corpse of Vince Carter outscored the Grizzlies' four non-Zach Randolph starters 16-15. The second came in Phoenix, where Memphis helped end what had been a 13-game skid for the Suns.

Just how dire the Grizzlies' straits are will be plenty apparent later this month, when the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers start popping up on the schedule. Then we'll all see how much Memphis misses Gasol, not to mention Courtney Lee and Jeff Green, both of whom were jettisoned before the trade deadline.

Liable to Lose a Glass Slipper

Toronto Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 4:  Luis Scola #4 and James Johnson #3 of the Toronto Raptors fights for position against Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 4, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowled
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Like the Rain Brothers in Portland, the pairing of Kyle Lowry—the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week—and DeMar DeRozan has done well to paper over the Toronto Raptors' questionable frontcourt. With DeMarre Carroll sidelined by knee surgery, they've relied on the aging Luis Scola and the inconsistent James Johnson to fill the gaps at forward

Head coach Dwane Casey's choices haven't done Toronto any favors. According to NBA.com, the Raptors' starters have been outscored by eight points per 100 possessions with Johnson at the 3 and Scola at the 4.

How, then, have the Raptors put together the East's second-best record? With one of the league's most lethal benches, that's how.

Come playoff time, Toronto won't be able to afford digging holes for itself from the outset. Regardless of who general manager Masai Ujiri did or didn't pursue to play power forward prior to the trade deadline, the addition of Jason Thompson won't do much to boost the Raptors if Carroll doesn't return to health by mid-April.

Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics still don't have the sort of star who can take a team from good to great—not that they haven't tried. According to the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett, Boston GM Danny Ainge made trade calls about Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Jahlil Okafor (among others) prior to the Feb. 18 deadline.

"The term I’ve heard with Danny is that he’s looking for a 'difference-maker,'" a league source told Bulpett. "He’s definitely willing to pay you for the right guy, but he wants someone who can move them to the next level."

The C's came up empty on that front and will head into the playoffs with All-Star Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner as their best creative options, if not their only ones. That likely won't be enough to push Boston past Cleveland and Toronto when the going gets tough in the postseason.

Dallas Mavericks

Good news for the Dallas Mavericks: They've been blowing out the scoreboards at the American Airlines Center during their current homestand. As ESPN's Tim MacMahon pointed out:

Dallas’ four-highest scoring games of the season have come in the wins during this 4-1 homestand, which wraps up Thursday against the Sacramento Kings, who just happen to allow the most points in the league.

Bad news: Those four wins have come against the Sixers, Nuggets, T-Wolves and Magic, all likely bound for the lottery.

Worse news: Starting next week, Dallas will begin a stretch of nine straight games against playoff contenders, including two meetings with the Golden State Warriors, two with the Portland Trail Blazers and one apiece with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers.

Which is to say, the Mavs might find themselves right there in lottery territory with Philly, Denver, Minnesota and Orlando by the end of the month.

Portland Trail Blazers

PORTLAND, OR - FEBRUARY 10:  Damian Lillard #0 and C.J. McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers sit on the bench before the game against the Houston Rockets on February 10, 2016 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have far exceeded expectations in shooting the Blazers back into the playoff picture mere months after the team parted ways with 80 percent of its longtime starting five.

But what happens when Portland matches wits with a top-tier opponent—be it the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder or Clippers—and has to account for a frontcourt rotation that prominently features Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu and Noah Vonleh? Of that group, only Leonard can pass for having any reliable offensive skill beyond five feet from the rim.

And it's not as though things get any better for the Blazers' bigs on defense, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe:

The Plumlee/Leonard combo has been a disaster on defense. Stotts has experimented lately with a Davis/Plumlee pairing, but it's unclear whether the Blazers can survive on offense with those two on the floor -- especially if Aminu joins them.

This isn't to take anything away from what Portland has accomplished this season. Outside of Golden State's pursuit of history, the Blazers' surprisingly quick resurgence has been the best story going in the NBA.

Just don't expect a happy ending for head coach Terry Stotts' squad come playoff time.

Atlanta Hawks

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 19:  Jeff Teague #0 and Dennis Schroder #17 of the Atlanta Hawks shake hands during the game against the Brooklyn Nets in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the NBA Playoffs on April 19, 2015 at Philips Arena in At
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The wackiness of the Eastern Conference playoff race put the Atlanta Hawks within two-and-a-half games of fourth place and just two games out of ninth place heading into Wednesday's games.

That can't come as any comfort to a club that's clearly in transition. Dennis Schroder, for one, has all but assumed Jeff Teague's crunch-time duties at point guard.

The results speak for themselves. According to NBA.com, Atlanta is 18.1 points per 100 possessions better when Schroder plays with the other starters as compared to when Teague takes the reins.

As dynamic of a young talent as Schroder has proved to be, the Hawks will be hard-pressed to make hay in the playoffs like they did last season with a floor general whose shooting (42.6 percent from the field, 33.7 percent from three) figures to get picked apart by astute opponents in the playoffs.

Miami Heat

Unlike the Grizzlies sans Gasol, the Miami Heat have the horses to hang with just about anyone in Chris Bosh's absence. They, too, have won five of seven since Bosh's blood clots returned, and they would've been up to six of seven by now if not for more of Stephen Curry's late-game heroics on Golden State's behalf.

But losing Bosh to the same ailment for a second consecutive season would be a devastating blow to Miami's outside hopes of exacting revenge on LeBron James and, in the process, contending for the Eastern Conference crown.

"Since he’s been here, a lot of what he’s meant to the organization, people don’t really understand it," Dwyane Wade told The Vertical's Michael Lee. "And it’s not just his talent, he’s so talented. But he’s a great individual."

Without their best player, the Heat will have to lean even more on the aging Amar'e Stoudemire and the ill-tempered Hassan Whiteside up front, with Wade in position to steal more of Goran Dragic's thunder by dragging down Miami's pace of play.

The Final Four (or Five)

Golden State Warriors

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 1: Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors shoots against Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks on March 1, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
Noah Graham/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors are still winning, but their triumphs are becoming increasingly tenuous. Of their six wins since getting pummeled in Portland, five have come by 10 or fewer points, four have come down to the wire and two have required overtime.

Golden State has seen its margins shrink in part due to Draymond Green's poor perimeter shooting. As ESPN's Ethan Strauss pointed out after Golden State's stunning 121-118 comeback in OKC:

Since Kerr's return to the sideline, Green is shooting less often from range. Before Kerr came back, Green was attempting 3.6 3-point attempts, making 41.1 percent. After Kerr's return, Green is averaging 1.6 3-point attempts, making 29.2 percent.

Green went 2-of-6 from three against the Hawks in Oakland on Tuesday, though one of those was a desperation heave from the corner that found the net in overtime. Per Strauss, Green's shooting has been a point of contention between him and Golden State's staff and was the subject of the All-Star's halftime tirade on Saturday. 

Green's emotions have fueled the Warriors' league-consuming fire since the start of last season. But if the friction proves too hot, Golden State could be vulnerable against the best in the West, especially if Stephen Curry's latest ankle injury lingers.

San Antonio Spurs

The rich continue to get richer in the Alamo City. Andre Miller signed on with the San Antonio Spurs after being bought out, Kevin Martin could be next—per ESPN's Marc Stein—and Manu Ginobili may be back sooner than expected.

That's all well and good, but it points to a bigger problem in San Antonio: age. In Miller and Tim Duncan, the Spurs now employ the NBA's two oldest players. Throw in Ginobili, and San Antonio can claim three of the six oldest.

Martin, 33, would be no spring chicken either. The same goes for Tony Parker (33), Boris Diaw (33) and David West (35).

Fortunately for the Spurs, their two best players—Kawhi Leonard (24) and LaMarcus Aldridge (30)—are still well within their respective primes. But who among San Antonio's decaying cast will still be standing come spring to support the team's two younger stars?

Oklahoma City Thunder

Say what you will about Scott Brooks' offensive tactics, but there's no denying the work he did turning the Oklahoma City Thunder into a defensive juggernaut—and how far Oklahoma City has slipped in that regard under Billy Donovan.

OKC ranks 14th in defensive efficiency, giving up 102.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That's a world away from how tightly Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Co. turned the screws during Brooks' heyday, prior to Durant's injury-riddled 2014-15 campaign.

OKC's Defensive Efficiency Since 2011-12
Defensive EfficiencyRank
2011-121009th
2012-1399.24th
2013-141015th
2014-15103.116th
2015-16102.814th
NBA.com/stats

Things have only gotten worse for the Thunder on that end since the All-Star break. They've lost four of six while allowing an unsightly 113 points per 100 possessions—a mark better only than those of the Suns, Timberwolves, 76ers and Lakers over that span.

Not exactly the kind of company a team wants to keep when competing for the top prize.

Los Angeles Clippers

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 29: The new Los Angeles Clippers mascot, a California Condor named 'Chuck,' dunks a basketball after being introduced by Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer during the basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets at Staples Ce
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

It's been almost two years since the Los Angeles Clippers exiled the NBA's most regrettable mascot, former team owner Donald Sterling. Apparently, that was long enough for owner Steve Ballmer. On Monday, he unveiled L.A.'s latest freak show: Chuck the Condor.

As the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke lamented, the last thing the Clippers need is another reason for folks to think they're a joke:

They have spent a tumultuous season clinging to the fourth seed in the Western Conference despite the continued absence of star Blake Griffin. They could have crumbled when Griffin punched out assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, but they didn't. They could have folded when it became clear that their two big off-season acquisitions, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson, were busts, but they've only gotten stronger.

The Clippers have been anything but a laughingstock in Griffin's absence. But just as Chuck's introduction wasn't exactly a rousing success, Griffin's return to the lineup could upset the equilibrium L.A. has established with Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan running pick-and-rolls with J.J. Redick on the wing.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers' roller-coaster season has swung violently enough on its own, even without Stephen A. Smith's bombshell about Kyrie Irving's desire to leave Cleveland.   

The team followed up a five-game winning streak, capped by a 115-92 blowout of the Thunder in OKC, with three losses out of four, including an embarrassing effort in D.C. while LeBron James rested.

As NBA.com's David Aldridge reported, there may be some "underlying issues" in Cleveland that could unravel the East's top title contender:

There is still, one member of the organization said, too much grumbling about roles and shots and not being able to find a rhythm when James is on the floor. All of that might be accurate, but these are the kinds of issues that championship teams endure and overcome. And on a team where all of the major players all have max or near-max deals, it's harder to be sympathetic.

If James can't get all of his teammates to pull in the same direction in the months to come, the Cavs could pull apart entirely before they get another shot at the West's best in June.

All stats accurate entering games played on March 2, 2016.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@JoshMartinNBA), Instagram and Facebook.

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