Let’s take a look at what the NBA conference standings look like right now. As you’ll see, there are very few spots that have solidified. Not that this should be a shock considering that we’re just past the halfway point.
First, the bad guys ...
Currently, the standings look like this:
2. Detroit (-6.5)
3. Washington (-6.5)
4. Cleveland (-7)
5. Orlando (-9.5)
6. Boston (-11)
7. Chicago (-11)
8. Philadelphia (-12)
Others: Indiana -12.5, New Jersey -14, Toronto -15
Assuming that things stay the way they are, you’d be looking at a Miami/Philly matchup, with the winner going against the team that emerges from Cleveland/Orlando. A potential second-round meeting between Miami and Cleveland is very intriguing and would be great for the NBA. On the other side of the bracket, Detroit and Chicago would face off, with the winner stacking up versus the Boston/Washington matchup. Depending on what you think of Washingon, this would appear to give Detroit a fairly clear path to the Eastern Conference finals.
It looks like Miami’s got a firm grasp on the #1 seed in the East and don’t look for them to lose it, barring an injury to Shaquille O’Neal. The next three teams have followed different tracks to get where they’re at. Detroit started off the season playing awful basketball, playing just well enough to hang around, and have really come together. Expect them to stay at the #2 spot. Washington and Cleveland on the other hand have been somewhat of a surprise this year; especially Washington. I think most of us expected Cleveland to compete, but not to be in the running for a top-3 seed. Watching these two teams battle it out will be very fun to watch for the rest of the year.
What will also be interesting will be to see if Indiana or New Jersey can climb up and grab one of those final spots. Obviously, Indiana looks much better with Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson back. If I had to predict today, I’d picture the Pacers able to climb up to the #6 slot, with Boston or Chicago falling out of the race.
1. San Antonio
2. Phoenix (-.5)
3. Seattle (-4.5)
4. Sacramento (-5.5)
5. Dallas (-6)
6. Houston (-10.5)
7. Memphis (-11)
8. Los Angeles Lakers (-13)
Others: Minnesota -14, LA Clippers -15, Denver -16.5, Portland -17
Again, assuming that nothing changes, the first round matchup of San Antonio and LA is interesting. The winner will then play whomever emerges from arguably the first-round’s most interesting pairing of either conference, Sacramento vs Dallas. Both of these teams probably expected to be in the top 3 seeds going into the season and are loaded with talent. On the other side of the bracket, Phoenix/Memphis and Houston/Seattle are the fancy foursome, with Phoenix likely having the easiest path to the Western Conference Finals of all of the top four seeds.
First of all, the fact that Minnesota is out of the playoffs right now is astounding. It’s amazing how much difference it can make when two of your four best players go into the season with a bad attitude. Personally, I still have confidence that they can grab a playoff spot – probably the 7th – and be a very scary matchup as an early-round opponent. Kevin Garnett displayed last year his ability to will his team through playoff series, and if I were a #2 seed, I wouldn’t be too happy to see him on the other side of the first round.
Which team drops out? To me, the obvious candidate is Houston. Memphis has been playing fabulous basketball over the past month -- I'm always a sucker for those teams who play disciplined and together. Los Angeles will have Kobe Bryant back soon and will likely get a boost. As the season comes down to the home stretch, watching Memphis, LA, and Minnesota jockey for position among those last three spots will be very fun to watch. Not to be lost in the fold either are the Denver Nuggets. With George Karl now at the helm, they could be a darkhorse team to go on a mid-season run. Likely not happening without some sort of personnel change, and they could be a team that's interesting to watch come the trade deadline.
Before I get a few ranting emails on why this topic wasn't broached, we might as well address it. I know what most of you are thinking: can Portland possibly move up and snag a playoff spot? And if so, would it be a good thing?
As much as I'd love to have a reason to fight for every game ... the answer to both questions seems to be "no". As it stands now, Portland is four games out of a playoff spot. The Lakers, Memphis, and Minnesota (all teams they'd be potentially competing with) have nowhere to go but up. Memphis is just starting to jell and put all of its talent together. LA has been able to hang around without Kobe, and you know he'll be coming back with a vengeance. Minnesota *could* potentially move even further down the ladder if they decide to pack in the season and trade off some of their veterans -- there are rumors of both Cassell and Sprewell being out the door -- however, they've got enough talent where they really should be in the mix. I don't think you can put Portland in that categor yet. Yes, they've looked better of late ... but do wins over the struggling Nuggets and Clippers, or escaping at home versus an expansion team, really mean anything? Until the Blazers start actually running plays on offense, shooting the ball effectively, and putting significant winning streaks together, I can't find enough reason to get on board.