2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

2012 NBA Draft Recap

In a particularly deep draft class, a few teams came out as clear winners with multiple picks that are set to have an immediate impact, while others simply settled for the best selections available. Here are the winners, losers and question marks of the 2012 NBA Draft:

Winners: New Orleans Hornets

No surprises here, but the New Orleans Hornets came out better than everybody as far as their draft picks are concerned. By virtue of the (flawed) lottery system, the Hornets stole the number one pick from the more deserving Charlotte Bobcats and didn’t let it go to waste, taking the clear best choice with Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. However, the Hornets also put their 10th pick to good use, picking up Duke guard Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Then New Orleans used their 46th pick to grab the small forward Darius Miller, a fellow UK teammate of Davis. With Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers in the backcourt and Anthony Davis in the middle, the Hornets have a very talented, very young core group to build around in the future. The Hornets won’t find immediate success as they still need talent at the forward positions, but this draft couldn’t have gone any better for a team that floundered in its first year without Chris Paul.

Anthony Davis was taken first in the 2012 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets.

Winners: Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets also had a nice draft, capitalizing on multiple selections early on. What they intend to do with those picks remains unclear, as the Rockets’ plan to lure Orlando into sending Dwight Howard to Houston for numerous draft picks has been mentioned many times, but for now, they have a young nucleus to work with. The Rockets took advantage of UCONN’s Jeremy Lamb still being on the board and grabbed him with the 12th pick before selecting Iowa State’s Royce White at number 16. Two picks later, they added Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones to the mix. While the Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic situation plays itself out, at least Houston was able to add young talent to their roster for the time being. Keep an eye on this team during the offseason however; they could be looking to make some major moves.

Here’s a look at the young talent that the Houston Rockets brought in this year.

Winners: Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers didn’t have the sexiest draft and they will most likely continue to struggle next season, but they did make good use of their picks. Portland has been seriously lacking at the guard positions ever since Brandon Roy was forced to retire and Raymond Felton has been extremely disappointing for Rip City. So with their number six pick, the Blazers selected Damian Lillard, a dynamic point guard from Weber State with one major attribute in his ability to score in droves. The Blazers also tried to get LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum some help in the front court by picking up Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick. Leonard has a lot of work to do to be a contributing big man in the NBA, but he also has the potential to help out in the paint.

The face of Portland’s new point guard: Damian Lillard

Winners: Golden State Warriors

Once again, this is a team that may not be a contender next year, but they’re certainly starting to turn things around with a young nucleus. After trading Monta Ellis for an injury-prone big man in Andrew Bogut, many feared the worst. But the Warriors had a solid draft, picking up Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green and Ognjen Kuzmic. While Kuzmic might not have much of an impact, the other three picks are very good ones. Harrison Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact while Ezeli will strengthen a frontcourt that depends too much on the shaky health of Bogut. Green isn’t the most enticing pick, but I think he will contribute if he can work his way into the rotation with David Lee, Klay Thompson and a hopefully (healthy) Stephen Curry.

Harrison Barnes joins Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green in Golden State.

Winners: Milwaukee Bucks

With mediocre position in the draft, the Bucks were able to get a quality big man and shot-blocker in John Henson, as well as a skilled shooter in Doron Lamb. Although these two acquisitions might not turn many heads this season, Milwaukee got a little bit of what it needed after trading away their injury-prone center. The backcourt is set with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, now the Bucks needed to add a paint presence and more shooters on the perimeter, which is exactly what they did.

The Bucks needed a shot-blocking big man and they certainly got one in John Henson.

Winners: Oklahoma City Thunder

They only had one pick in the draft, but the Oklahoma City Thunder sure made it count by picking up Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Although there are some concerns about Jones’ knee, the rewards outweighed the risks by the time the 28th pick of the draft rolled around. If PJ3 can stay healthy, he can be an extremely helpful presence in the paint off the bench for the Thunder, especially if they can’t hold on to Serge Ibaka. At the worst, he’ll be a bust, but the Thunder did just make it to the Finals, so if anyone can afford to take the chance, it’s OKC.

Perry Jones III may have been the steal of the draft, falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 28th pick.

Losers: Brooklyn Nets

This was already decided months ago, but the decision to give Portland draft picks in exchange for Gerald Wallace makes this an easy choice for one of the bigger losers in the 2012 NBA Draft. Wallace was a dynamic player…when he was in his prime. With that decision, the Nets settled for Ilkan Karaman with the 57th pick, which was their only selection of the night. Not exactly the kind of way to convince your star point guard to stay instead of bolting for Dallas. That could change if the Nets are able to find some way to entice Dwight Howard to come to Brooklyn, but if not, there’s little reason for Deron Williams to stay.

Was he really worth not getting any new talent in the 2012 NBA Draft?

Losers: Phoenix Suns

It’s ironic that I’m labeling the Suns as losers when they actually made an intelligent selection based on what was left by the time their 13th pick rolled around, but choosing a great passing point guard in Kendall Marshall only reaffirms the fears that are in every fan’s mind: Steve Nash might really be leaving. Suns management denied that free agency had anything to do with it, but why else would they ignore the other gaping problems in their roster if they weren’t at least a little concerned that Nash might be gone next year? Yes, the Suns are lacking a big in the backcourt after Nash (Sebastian Telfair is the Suns’ second point guard at this point) and Phoenix is already up to their ears with small forwards, but is choosing a backup point guard really the best draft strategy with the 13th pick if you really think Nash is going to stay? I didn’t think so. Everyone was big on this pick, but all I see right now is an insurance policy.

The Suns swear the Kendall Marshall pick wasn’t influenced by free agency coming up, but why else would they take a passing point guard unless they were worried Steve Nash might leave?

Losers: Los Angeles Lakers

I loved watching Robert Sacre play at Gonzaga, but it seemed that with each passing year he never seemed to get better. Los Angeles didn’t have great position in this year’s draft which was part of the problem, but I don’t see Sacre having much of an impact and I certainly don’t see him providing help in the paint for a team that may be trading Pau Gasol away very soon. The Lakers would have been better off with a role player like the undrafted double-double machine Drew Gordon, who can score and grab rebounds. They did get their hands on Darius Johnson-Odom from Marquette by virtue of Dallas’ pick, but I just don’t see him helping a very lackluster LA bench. The Lakers have problems to sort out and even though a few offseason moves could quickly right the ship, the 2012 draft didn’t accomplish very much.

Robert Sacre is heading to LA, but he won’t be able to replace Pau Gasol is he’s traded away.

Losers: Charlotte Bobcats

Yes, they got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a very coveted piece at the number two spot in the draft. But after hearing rumors about what some teams were offering Charlotte for the chance to pick up Gilchrist, it’s a little disappointing the Bobcats weren’t able to work out something better. Not that Gilchrist won’t be able to help in some way in his first season with the abysmal Bobcats, but at this point Charlotte needs a miracle to turn their organization around. They already got screwed over in the draft lottery when they couldn’t land the number one pick, so I don’t think Gilchrist (and the strikingly similar selection in Vanderbilt’s talented Jeff Taylor) will be enough to turn this ship around.

The Bobcats got Kidd-Gilchrist, but then spent their second pick on the similar Jeff Taylor.

Question Marks: Boston Celtics

There were already question marks surrounding the Celtics before the draft got underway. Will Kevin Garnett be back? Is Boston still planning on trading Rajon Rondo any time soon? Will Brandon Bass stay? And would Ray Allen really leave for the Miami Heat? Now they’ve added more questions to the mix with their selections of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, two talented big men who also have slight downsides. For Melo, there are rightful concerns about his attitude and overall basketball IQ, making him a bit of a project for Doc Rivers. As for Sullinger, the risk of his back problems could prevent him from seeing a lot of playing time. But that’s okay, the last injury-prone big man out of Ohio State turned out to be just fine and had a long and successful career, right?

The Celtics picked up two quality big men, but both are major projects for Boston to work on.

Question Mark: Dallas Mavericks

After a lot of trades and flip flopping of picks, the Mavericks ended up with Jared Cunningham (an attacking shooting guard from Oregon State), Bernard James (a 27-year-old center from Florida State) and Jae Crowder (a very undersized but tough “power forward” from Marquette). While I understand the need to put young pieces around Dirk with young in the hopes of rebuilding with Deron Williams, I’m not sold on Dallas’ selections. They’re not terrible selections and they could prove me wrong very easily, but for the time being, I need to see where the Mavericks’ offseason takes them.

I still need to see how these draft picks play in to acquiring Williams before I pass judgment.

Question Mark: Indiana Pacers

The Pacers had a tremendous season but fell short to the Heat because of two main reasons: 1) Roy Hibbert crawled into a deep dark hole and couldn’t be bothered despite Indiana’s enormous advantage in the paint (especially with Chris Bosh out) and 2) they didn’t have a consistent sixth man to help ease the pressure when their starters needed a breather. Indiana can’t do anything about Hibbert except hope he rises to the occasion next time, but they had power over the second part of that equation. Unfortunately, I don’t see Miles Plumlee as the answer to the bench problem. On a team with Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, why use your only pick in the draft for another unathletic rebounder who can’t score? In their defense though, they did get their hands on Orlando Johnson, a dynamic scorer from UC Santa Barbara who could be the exact lift off the bench the Pacers need. But for the moment, that hope remains uncertain.

You’re looking at the face of a coach who doesn’t have much to be excited about after the draft.

Question Mark: Minnesota Timberwolves

With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love to build around, the Timberwolves are one of the youngest and most promising squads of the future. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft did little to make that statement even stronger. I’ve always liked Robbie Hummel and I do think he can add points off the bench because he’s an elite shooter and a smart player. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be enough to raise the Timberwolves to the next level. Hummel has pretty much reached his peak (or will soon enough) and the Wolves really could have benefitted from a better spot than the 58th pick of the draft.

The Wolves have a promising future, but needed to do more in the 2012 draft.

Question Mark: Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are usually very good about their draft picks (Kenneth Faried is going to be a beast next year), but this year raised more than a few doubts. Nuggets fans are usually pretty accepting and trusting of their management, but I have to question the drafting of so many foreign players who haven’t proven they can play at an NBA level. Denver took Evan Fournier of France and Izzet Turkyilmaz of Turkey, who both have many areas they need to improve. However, the Nuggets also took Quincy Miller from Baylor, who could be quite the steal if he stays healthy. Nuggets fans trust their management and it usually pays off, but I need to see more before I can say it was another successful draft for Denver.

I don’t see any Kenneth Farieds in the Denver’s 2012 draft selections.

Question Mark: Cleveland Cavaliers

Sure, they added some length with Tyler Zeller and moved up in the draft to go along with their fourth pick. But I’m still struggling with the selection of Dion Waiters as the number four pick of the 2012 draft. Whatever Cleveland saw at the NBA Combine must really have impressed them, because Waiters’ stock rose incredibly fast after being projected in the middle of the first round just a few weeks ago. Zeller adds more size and depth to a Cavs team in need of both, but if Zeller can’t produce and hold his own at the next level and if Waiters doesn’t pan out to be a complementary guard for Kyrie Irving, Cleveland might regret this draft.

I can’t help but think the Cleveland Cavaliers could’ve done better with their picks in the draft.

In closing, here is the complete list of every pick of the 2012 NBA Draft:

  1. Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets
  2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats
  3. Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
  4. Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers
  5. Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings
  6. Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
  7. Harrison Barnes – Golden State Warriors
  8. Terrence Ross – Toronto Raptors
  9. Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
  10. Austin Rivers – New Orleans Hornets
  11. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
  12. Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets
  13. Kendall Marshall – Phoenix Suns
  14. John Henson – Milwaukee Bucks
  15. Maurice Harkless – Philadelphia 76ers
  16. Royce White – Houston Rockets
  17. Tyler Zeller – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Cleveland Cavaliers)
  18. Terrence Jones – Houston Rockets
  19. Andrew Nicholson – Orlando Magic
  20. Evan Fournier – Denver Nuggets
  21. Jared Sullinger – Boston Celtics
  22. Fab Melo – Boston Celtics
  23. John Jenkins – Atlanta Hawks
  24. Jared Cunningham – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  25. Tony Wroten Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
  26. Miles Plumlee – Indiana Pacers
  27. Arnett Moultrie – Miami Heat (traded to Philadelphia 76ers)
  28. Perry Jones III – Oklahoma City Thunder
  29. Marquis Teague – Chicago Bulls
  30. Festus Ezeli – Golden State Warriors
  31. Jeff Taylor – Charlotte Bobcats
  32. Tomas Satoransky – Washington Wizards
  33. Bernard James – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  34. Jae Crowder – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  35. Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
  36. Orlando Johnson – Sacramento Kings (traded to Indiana Pacers)
  37. Quincy Acy – Toronto Raptors
  38. Quincy Miller – Denver Nuggets
  39. Khris Middleton – Detroit Pistons
  40. Will Barton – Portland Trail Blazers
  41. Tyshawn Taylor – Portland Trail Blazers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  42. Doron Lamb – Milwaukee Bucks
  43. Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks
  44. Kim English – Detroit Pistons
  45. Justin Hamilton – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Miami Heat)
  46. Darius Miller – New Orleans Hornets
  47. Kevin Murphy – Utah Jazz
  48. Kosta Papanikolaou – New York Knicks
  49. Kyle O’Quinn – Orlando Magic
  50. Izzet Turkyilmaz – Denver Nuggets
  51. Kris Joseph – Boston Celtics
  52. Ognjen Kuzmic – Golden State Warriors
  53. Furkan Aldemir – Los Angeles Clippers
  54. Tornike Shengelia – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  55. Darius Johnson-Odom – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
  56. Tomislav Zubcic – Toronto Raptors
  57. Ilkan Karaman – Brooklyn Nets
  58. Robbie Hummel – Minnesota Timberwolves
  59. Marcus Denmon – San Antonio Spurs
  60. Robert Sacre – Los Angeles Lakers

EASTer Update

Happy Easter, NBA fans! Just in case you haven’t been following all the recent developments in the league this week, here’s a quick rundown of where everyone stands:

Chicago Bulls – The Bulls still have a three-game lead over the Miami Heat for the first seed in the Eastern Conference. But in addition to all this news is that Chicago’s star point guard Derrick Rose is hopeful to play today against the New York Knicks after missing 12 games with a groin injury. If D-Rose can mesh with the team chemistry the Bulls established without their MVP on the court, look out for this team in the playoffs.

Miami Heat – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat have dropped some games this week, raising concerns about whether or not this team will be peaking at the right time. People are right when they say that you can’t just turn it on and off, but if any team can, it’s the Heat. Despite getting smashed by the Grizzlies, keep in mind that Memphis is the sleeper team of the West and it was only one game. Miami and LeBron made a statement in a win over the Thunder on Wednesday and should be comfortable entering the postseason with the two seed.

LeBron James settled the MVP debate with a dominant performance against the Thunder Wednesday.

Indiana Pacers – Despite dropping a game against the Celtics at home in an ugly offensive performance, the Pacers have taken the three spot in the East like I predicted they would. The Pacers were on a five-game winning streak until their off-night against Boston and have looked impressive with wins over Houston, New York and OKC. Danny Granger has been a terrific leader and has stepped up his offensive production when Indiana has needed him to. Don’t be surprised if this sleeper team makes some noise in the playoffs as the third seed.

Danny Granger has stepped his game up and the Pacers have moved up the standings as a result.

Boston Celtics – The Celtics have been on the rise in the past few games thanks to Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce, but you can expect them to lose a fair amount of games down the stretch because of their tough remaining schedule. The Celtics have a two-game lead over the 76ers for the fourth seed and the top spot in the Atlantic division, but with their remaining schedule, it’s even money on who takes this spot. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Celtics did hang on, if only because of how bad the Sixers have been lately.

Atlanta Hawks – While the Hawks haven’t proven much in their three-game winning streak (they beat Charlotte twice and Detroit), they are only a half-game behind Indiana for the third seed. Josh Smith has been playing like a man possessed this month, doing it all for Atlanta. The Hawks’ remaining schedule is pretty favorable, but it remains to be seen how this inconsistent team will fare once the playoffs roll around.

Orlando Magic – After a tumultuous week of friction, media criticism and poor play, the Magic ended their five-game losing streak with a much-needed win in Philadelphia. Even though Philly isn’t playing good ball right now, the win was impressive because Orlando was without Ryan Anderson and Hedo Turkoglu, as well as the fact that Dwight Howard has been getting hammered for the past few days. Superman responded with a statement game: 20 points, 22 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks. As long as Stan Van Gundy and D12 focus on playing basketball, the Magic will at least compete.

Dwight Howard silenced his critics with a 20-point, 22-rebound performance against the Sixers.

Philadelphia 76ers – The Sixers have lost three straight and four of their last five. I predicted this team was a pretender, but I didn’t think they’d collapse like this heading into the postseason. Philly has an easier remaining schedule than Boston, but the way they’re playing right now, with Andre Iguodala getting booed at the free throw line at home, things are looking good. All this combined with their ever-present inability to score should make for a first-round exit in the playoffs.

New York Knicks – The Knicks are playing great basketball right now and Carmelo Anthony has finally started to play like the quality superstar fans have waited for since he first came to New York. It took almost an entire season, but Melo is finally in shape and shooting well, so even with Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire still sidelined, the Knicks are in good shape. Iman Shumpert and the rest of the Knicks’ role players have all stepped up, but New York still has to keep winning because of how good the Bucks are playing. The Knicks are only one game behind Philly for the seventh seed but are just one game ahead of Milwaukee for the final playoff spot.

Carmelo Anthony has finally started playing like one of the NBA's elite superstars again.

Milwaukee Bucks – The final playoff-contending team in the East is doing everything it can to catch the Knicks for the last postseason spot, but the Knicks are doing extremely well in winning to keep Milwaukee at bay. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis look like they’ve grown acclimated to each other and form one of the most formidable backcourts in the NBA. Jennings, Ellis and Ersan Illyasova, along with a suddenly lively bench, will keep them in the playoff hunt until the end.

Happy EASTer basketball fans!

Eastern Conference Predictions

I’ve already given my picks for who will make the playoffs in the West, but now let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference. The East is a little bit easier as far as picking which eight teams will make the cut (only the Milwaukee Bucks are even remotely close to the Knicks for the eighth spot), but things get a little bit trickier in deciding who will end up where. Here’s where I think the eight Eastern contenders will end up when all is said and done:

1) Chicago Bulls – If the Bulls can win without their reigning MVP point guard, nobody is catching Chicago at this point. The Bulls currently have a 3 and a half game lead over the Miami Heat for the top spot, which is particularly impressive considering Derrick Rose has been sidelined for their last eight games. I still think this team won’t go very far in the postseason without D-Rose, but Chicago’s incredible team play almost made me reconsider it. CJ Watson has been perfect for running the offense as a true point guard while Luol Deng has stepped up as Chicago’s alpha dog. Nobody’s running with the Bulls for the top spot this season.

The Bulls just keep winning, even without Derrick Rose. Chicago will take the top spot.

2) Miami Heat – The Heat are currently 3 and a half games behind the Bulls for the first spot in the East, and although I’m picking them to go to the NBA Finals over Chicago, I don’t think they’ll rack up as many wins as they’d need to take that one seed. When the Heat lose games, they have a tendency to go on losing streaks, even if they’re only small slumps. The Bulls, on the other hand, have yet to lose back-to-back games this season. Miami will grab the two spot, but that really doesn’t matter much for this heavy postseason favorite.

Yes the uniforms look like Lifesavers Gummies wrappers. But the Heat mean business this year.

3) Indiana Pacers – This is by far the boldest pick I’m going to make, but I think the Pacers can edge the Magic for the third seed in the East. If not for the rule that the winner of a division must get at least a four seed, the Pacers would already have that position locked down, only trailing the Magic by one game. Instead, because of that rule, either Boston or Philly has to get the four seed. That fact, along with the misfortune of having the league-leading Bulls in the same division, means Indiana will have to battle to get the quality seed they deserve. However, the Pacers’ remaining schedule is definitely in their favor as the really only play San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Philly twice and Chicago (last game of the season). The rest are very winnable games, so if Indiana keeps their focus they could quickly turn into the squad I projected as my sleeper team at the beginning of the season.

Danny Granger has been a great leader for the Pacers and I think Indiana is the NBA's sleeper team this year.

4) Philadelphia 76ers – Philly dropped all the way to the seventh spot in the East last night after an awful loss to the Washington Wizards in which they could only tally 76 points. While other contending teams in the East seem to be peaking at the right time, the Sixers are fading fast (like I predicted they would). However, this is still a good defensive team, and that will usually keep you in games. Despite the fact that I think the Sixers will make a quick first-round exit no matter what seed they get, I think Philly will win the division and grab the fourth spot, if only because of Boston’s formidable remaining schedule.

I still don't believe in the Sixers, but their easier schedule should get them the four seed.

5) Orlando Magic – The Magic currently have a one-game lead over the Pacers for the three seed, but Orlando is not playing good basketball right now. Their last two games were a blowout loss in New York and a disappointing loss at home against Dallas in which the Magic led for the majority of the game. Orlando also has a much more challenging road to the end of the season than the Pacers, and while their phenomenal 22-3 record against teams below .500 should almost guarantee a few wins, their unimpressive 10-17 record against teams above .500 won’t help them when nine of their last 14 games are against opponents in that category.

Dwight Howard can only do so much for this team. Eventually the Magic will fall short.

6) Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks are a paltry 9-17 against teams above .500, and 7 of their last 13 games come against teams who fit that qualification. Even though Atlanta has a pretty favorable remaining schedule, I don’t see the Hawks outwinning the Pacers or the Magic and will likely be pushed back to the sixth seed. Their inconsistent play against teams that matter has always kept this team from reaching the upper echelon of the NBA they easily qualify for. I expect it to hold them back a little bit here as well, even if Joe Johnson and Josh Smith are both playing great ball right now.

Joe Johnson and Josh Smith are playing great right now. But the Hawks probably won't get higher than the six seed.

7) Boston Celtics – If the remaining schedules were different, I would favor Boston over Philly in a heartbeat. Philly’s defense is good but I can’t buy in to their ability to score when their leading scorer comes off the bench. However, the Celtics have the misfortune of perhaps the ugliest remaining schedule in the NBA: Miami three times, Chicago, Indiana, San Antonio, Philly, Atlanta twice, Orlando and New York. As much as the Celts have proved me wrong this season by battling through trade rumors and an aging Big 3, and as much as Rajon Rondo has played like a superstar after being snubbed for the All-Star game (he ended up going anyone in Joe Johnson’s place, but he was upset about not getting voted in), I just don’t see Boston winning enough of these games to oust Philly from atop the Atlantic division (remember, the winner of this division will get the four seed).

Rajon Rondo has helped keep the Celtics relevant, but they have a tough schedule coming up.

8) New York Knicks – Injuries are starting to take their toll, and despite the fact that New York somehow has still been able to win (that Orlando blowout was particularly impressive), eventually the Knicks will miss Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin. Carmelo Anthony can only continue his elevated play for so long, especially with some particularly nasty matchups coming up soon when Amare (and possibly Lin) will still be sidelined: Indiana, Orlando and a back-to-back with Chicago. Although they are currently only one and a half games ahead, the Knicks should be fine in keeping their distance from the Bucks for the last playoff spot, but I don’t expect them to climb any higher than the eight seed.

Melo has stepped up for his injury-plagued team, but it won't get the Knicks more than the eight seed.

Didn’t make the cut: Milwaukee Bucks

9) Milwaukee Bucks – Milwaukee is only one and a half games back right now, but the Bucks will have problems with their remaining schedule (OKC, New York, Indiana twice, Philly and Boston). I’m excited to see Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis continue to develop together with surprise sensation Ersan Ilyasova, but I don’t think it will result in a playoff appearance this year. New York just has too much talent to allow the Bucks back in the playoff race.

Monta Ellis and the rest of the Bucks will be interesting to watch next year, but for now, I don't see them closing the gap.

So there you have it, my predictions for the Eastern Conference standings for the playoffs. Where do you have everyone in the East finishing?

News Around The League

In the past few days there have been a few minor headlines in the NBA worth noting. First of all, the Spurs signed Patty Mills yesterday. Mills has spent this season playing in China because of the NBA lockout. He averaged 5.1 ppg as a backup point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers the past two seasons and will fill the gap left when T.J. Ford retired a few weeks ago. The Spurs have made small, but significant moves leading up to the postseason that should improve their already impressive bench. Stephen Jackson has played well off the bench so far and San Antonio also signed Boris Diaw last week.

The Spurs signed Patty Mills as their backup point guard yesterday to add to their depth.

Another piece of news that has made major headlines (and been blown WAY out of proportion) is Lakers coach Mike Brown’s decision to bench Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter of LA’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday. Brown substituted Metta World Peace for Kobe down 14 with less than six minutes to play, drawing boos and “Ko-be!” chants from the crowd. The media and some fans have blown this move way out of proportion, suggesting Mike Brown’s incompetence as a coach and Kobe’s anger with his head coach. Kobe said he was frustrated with Brown’s decision, but that the decision was ultimately Brown’s to make. Anyone thinking this move was a big deal needs to stop. Kobe has been shooting terribly in the past few games, including that loss to Memphis. Despite the fact that Kobe is considered one of the most clutch players in the league, statistics say otherwise, and Mike Brown is the coach. It was his decision to make, and if a player isn’t playing up to their standards, it’s a coach’s job to put him on the bench. Notice that the Lakers cut the lead to nine at the 1:51 mark without Kobe in, and it clearly wasn’t a personal move against Bryant because Brown put him back in the game at that point. Chalk it up to a dumb yet semi-defendable coaching decision and move on.

Enough of the Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe drama. It's been blown WAY out of proportion.

Meanwhile, the Knicks have put some distance between themselves and the Bucks for the eighth seed in the East, but how long will that two-game gap last? Amare Stoudemire is out indefinitely after the results of an MRI on Monday showed he has a bulging disk in his lower back. The Knicks were able to get a win over the Bucks Monday without Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, who sat out with a sore knee, but if not for Carmelo Anthony’s elevated performance and an appalling shooting night for Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, things might have been different. To make things worse, Melo, who is the Knicks’ biggest offensive threat without Lin or Amare on the court, tweaked his groin in that game and is listed as day-to-day. Melo said he will be reevaluated and hopes to be ready for the Knicks’ game against the Magic tonight. But if Amare, Lin AND Melo can’t go, New York could be in serious trouble.

Speaking of injuries, LeBron James might have a dislocated finger after injuring it in the Heat’s loss to the Pacers on Monday. He had already been playing with a sore elbow, seeing his field goal percentage drop from 53 percent down to just 40 in the past five games. The fact that he injured his ring finger makes the jokes all too easy, but if LeBron continues to struggle, so will the Heat. However, Miami has plenty of time to turn things around and be contenders in the playoffs even if they don’t finish the regular season on a strong note.

The irony of LeBron dislocating his ring finger is overwhelming.

A few more recent injury headlines. First, Daniel Gibson will likely miss the remainder of the season after an MRI revealed a torn tendon in his left foot. Gibson has averaged 7.5 ppg for the Cavs, who are reeling as it is. Gibson isn’t a huge contributor, but Cleveland needs all the help it can get it at this point. With another loss like this, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cleveland starts to tank. Next, Jerryd Bayless partially tore his left oblique muscle in Monday’s game against the Magic and will be out for the rest of the season. Bayless has averaged 11.4 ppg and 3.8 apg this season for Toronto and averaged 21.8 ppg and 7.6 apg in the five games he started in this month. This is a big loss for an already floundering Raptors team.

To wrap things up, after a week of speculation about Vinny Del Negro’s job security as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, reports emerged that the Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and GM Neil Olshey are both behind Del Negro, who will finish the season as head coach. Previous reports had stated that Del Negro had lost support in the locker room and that his job was in jeopardy after a Clippers losing streak, but it appears that for now, Del Negro is here to stay. So you can expect the Clippers to continue to underachieve this year.

Vinny Del Negro is here to stay for the rest of the season. So are the Clippers' problems.

Trade Impact: Monta Ellis to Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Bucks recently snuck into the number 8 seed in the East, but after today’s fantastic trade, they may have a few more spots to climb. The Bucks acquired Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown from Golden State and will send the injury-laden pair of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson to the Warriors.

For the Bucks, this is a fantastic trade at the moment. Although they initially struggled without their star big man Bogut, Milwaukee worked its way back into the playoff race thanks phenomenal elevated play from Ersan Ilyasova and Drew Gooden, consistently great play from Jennings, and the Knicks’ six game losing streak. All with Bogut and Jackson sitting on the bench. Can you imagine a starting lineup of Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Ilyasova, Gooden and Tobias Harris, with Mike Dunleavy (consistent bench scoring), Carlos Delfino (current starter averaging 9.0 ppg) and Beno Udrih (a semi-efficient guard) coming off the bench and giving decent minutes? Ignoring the Tobias Harris part, that sounds like a pretty decent squad! The biggest concern is how Jennings and Ellis will play together, as both are phenomenal guards who look to score first and need a lot of shots. The give-and-take at the guard position may take some getting used to if this team is to be successful. But if these two can learn to play together, you’re potentially looking at the NBA’s most dangerous backcourt. Kwame Brown and Ekpe Udoh don’t really bring much to the table, but trading Milwaukee’s two injured players for the Warriors’ scoring machine, especially when one of those players has a history of injury, is a great move for the Bucks.

If Ellis can fit in with Jennings, the Bucks could become a solid team in the East

On the other side of the coin, this move is perplexing if you’re a Warriors fan, as Golden State just gave up its best offensive weapon for two injured players who have been riding Milwaukee’s bench all season. Bogut has played in 12 games this season, spending the majority of his time on the sideline after fracturing his ankle against the Rockets on Jan. 25.  Stephen Jackson hasn’t played since Feb. 19, sitting out with a hamstring injury, but even when he was healthy, he saw limited minutes as Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles didn’t like his attitude problem. Apparently the Warriors have given up on Mark Jackson and the Warriors for this season and look to rebuild for next year starting now. A healthy core of Curry, Bogut, Jackson, and David Lee along with Dorrell Wright, Brandon Rush and Nate Robinson is an interesting concept for next season, especially if Coach Jackson can learn to control the new Jackson. But as long as Curry continues to be riddled with ankle injuries and Mark Jackson continues to struggle as a head coach (you think Stephen Jackson’s attitude problem will improve with a first-year coach?), Warriors basketball may not be so fun to watch for the time being.

Golden State, give it up for your injured big man....Andrew Bogut!

NOTE: Could the Warriors be setting themselves up to try and trade multiple pieces for Dwight Howard? They now have Bogut, Jackson, Curry, Lee and other role-player assets that could be packaged into a big deal for Superman. It would be interesting to see what kind of package would interest the Magic in exchange for Howard, but just a thought to keep in mind.

NBA Sunday Recap

Here are the major highlights of Sunday’s NBA action:

Thunder vs. Nuggets – The Thunder got a quality win in overtime in the best game of the day, outlasting the Nuggets 124-118 thanks to a monster game from Kevin Durant, who finished with a career-high 51 points and 8 rebounds. Russell Westbrook would have been the story with 40 points and 9 assists if not for Durant’s big night. The Thunder closed the first half on an 8-0 run as Denver came into Oklahoma City determined despite not having Danilo Gallinari or Nene. But the run carried over into the second half as OKC opened the third quarter on a 12-0 run. Although the resilient Nuggets surged to tie the game at 83 heading into the 4th, the Thunder would not be denied as Kevin Durant scored 5 points in the final 35 seconds to send it to overtime. Serge Ibaka finished with a triple double of 14 points, 15 rebounds and 11 blocks, while Arron Afflalo led the Nuggets with 27 points. The Thunder got a great overtime win here, but look for the Nuggets to go back to their winning ways once Gallinari and Nene return.

Knicks vs. Mavs – The Mavs came into Madison Square Garden on a six-game winning streak and Dirk played at his best, scoring 34 points. But the Knicks would not be denied and proved themselves as legitimate contenders in the East with a 104-97 win. Despite having 9 turnovers, Jeremy Lin led the Knicks with 28 points and 14 assists, while JR Smith had 15 points in his debut in New York. Steve Novak and Lin led the late charge as they Knicks erased a third quarter deficit capped off by Lin’s steal and dunk, while Novak then knocked down four 3’s in the 4th quarter. Six players scored in double digits for New York. With an impressive win like this over a quality defensive Dallas squad, one has to wonder how good the Knicks can be when Melo returns. Just think about this starting lineup: Lin, JR, Melo, Amare and Chandler.

Heat vs. Magic – Although the Knicks/Mavs contest was an exciting game to watch, the Heat showed they are still the beast of the East from the get-go, winning 90-78. Wade had 12 points in the first quarter, including an impossible fadeaway in the corner and two alley-oop dunks from James (one from half court). LeBron James almost ended up with a triple double with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists and Wade pitched in 27 points. The Magic looked underwhelming once again and it seems they may not be a very functional unit until Dwight Howard is either traded or commits to staying. JJ Reddick started for Jason Richardson (who sat out with chest pain) and led the team with 17 points. Howard had 12 points and 15 rebounds.

Timberwolves vs. 76ers – The Timberwolves were able to edge the 76ers 92-91 with .01 seconds left on a pair of Kevin Love free throws in a close game that came down to the wire in Minnesota. Jrue Holiday led the 76ers with 20 points and 5 rebounds, while Ricky Rubio led the T-Wolves with 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Love finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Look for the Timberwolves to be in the hunt for the playoffs this year, even if the 76ers may be slightly overrated right now.

Suns vs. Lakers – The Suns exacted a little revenge on Kobe and the Lakers at home in a dominant 102-90 win after surging to a 63-40 halftime lead. Jared Dudley had a season-high 25 points to lead Phoenix. Marcin Gortat ended up with 21 points and 15 rebounds while Grant Hill added 15 points. Kobe Bryant continued his personal dominance against the Suns, finishing with 36 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists.

Cavs vs. Kings – Kyrie Irving hit two free throws with .04 seconds to go to give the Cavs a close 93-92 win over the Kings. Irving’s free throws came just seconds after Demarcus Cousins hit a bucket to give Sacramento the lead. Irving finished with 23 points and Antawn Jamison had 21. Isaiah Thomas had a career-high 23 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds in his second start.

Pistons vs. Celtics – Boston continued to struggle and show signs of frustration with a 96-81 loss to the streaking Detroit Pistons, who have won seven of their last nine games. Greg Monroe had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists while Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 18. Boston was missing Kevin Garnett due to personal reasons, as well as Brandon Bass who is still out with a knee injury. Doc Rivers and Chris Wilcox received technicals for arguing calls with the referees. Rajon Rondo received two technicals in less than ten seconds after throwing the ball at the referee and was ejected.

Pacers vs. Bobcats – The Pacers looked to keep the momentum going with a 108-73 blow out of the Bobcats after their last win, which followed a five-game losing streak. Roy Hibbert had 18 points and 14 rebounds for Indiana, while Danny Granger and David West each chipped in 14 points. Derrick Brown led the Bobcats with 16 points and Kemba Walker added 15. The Bobcats have lost 17 of their last 18 games. Keep an eye on the Pacers going forward; they may not have flash, but good teams beat teams they’re supposed to.

Nets vs. Bucks – The Bucks beat the Nets 92-85 thanks to career highs from Ersan Ilyasova, who had 29 points and 25 rebounds. Brandon Jennings had 17 points while Deron Williams led New Jersey with 26 points. Brook Lopez, who has missed the entire season with a broken foot, played 22 minutes and had 9 points and 2 rebounds. Be sure that Brook Lopez is no longer on your IR in fantasy leagues.

Rockets vs. Jazz – The Rockets held off a late rally by the Jazz in a 101-85 win thanks to Kyle Lowry’s 32 points and 9 assists. Luis Scola had 26 points, while Al Jefferson led Utah with 23 points and 11 rebounds. The win has the Rockets as the seven spot in the West.