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.

NBA Free Agency Update – July 16

For the latest news and analysis on all the action of NBA free agency over the last few days, check out my article via Reup Sports. Today’s post includes Jeremy Lin heading to Houston, Phoenix picking up Luis Scola, the ongoing battle for Nicolas Batum and more!

Spurs Sweep Clippers, Advance To Western Conference Finals

San Antonio was down late, on the road, against a Clippers team that was finally enjoying a quality performance from Chris Paul. But Tim Duncan and the Spurs would not be denied and swept Lob City in Game 4 with a 102-99 win. The victory marked their second sweep of the playoffs this year and their 18th win in a row, a streak extending back to the regular season.

The Clippers battled, Chris Paul dropped 23 points and 11 dimes and still the Spurs came out on top to finish Lob City off. Blake Griffin added 21 and Eric Bledsoe had 17 off the bench, but there was no answer for the Spurs’ execution in the game’s final two minutes. The Clippers fought hard, got decent scoring off the bench and DeAndre Jordan even pitched in 10, but San Antonio proved to be a little too much for this team in only their first year together. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 21 points and nine rebounds and Tony Parker had 17 points. Daniel Green had 14, Gary Neal matched that number off the bench and Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter added 11 apiece. As has been the case throughout the series and the playoffs so far, the Spurs’ depth and incredibly balanced scoring overpowered San Antonio’s opponent and their execution under Greg Popovich has been flawless up to this point. The Clippers gave the Spurs everything they could handle at home but San Antonio is playing the best basketball in the NBA right now.

Say what you want about his age, but Tim Duncan is still getting it done.

The Spurs really are the complete package right now, despite the fact that one of their best three players has been aging ever so steadily over the past few years. Even so, Tim Duncan hasn’t slowed down. His athleticism and defense on skilled post players leaves a little to be desired, but his offensive technique, rebounding and passing ability and his sheer experience and knowledge on how to win games makes the Spurs a big contender. Tony Parker is playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, Manu Ginobili is scoring off the bench again and almost all of the Spurs’ role players and reserves are fully capable of scoring, knocking down 3-pointers and playing defense. It was nice to see Chris Paul play well, but down the stretch, Daniel Green was able to shut him down and keep the Spurs on top at the end. This is just one of many examples of how this well-oiled machine functions as parts of a complete team and will provide a huge challenge to either the Thunder or the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

As I mentioned before, Clippers fans shouldn’t hang their heads after their team won its third playoff series in 35 years. The result was disappointing, but Lob City was only in its first year and if the Clips can get Chauncey Billups back, replace Vinny Del Negro with somebody better (almost anyone applies here) and maybe improve at center and small forward, they could be dangerous next year. This year was a learning process and LAC still accomplished so much; unfortunately, they got the difficult task of matching up with the San Antonio Spurs juggernaut in the second round. Although they have a lot of unrestricted free agents at the end of this year, if they can sign the majority back and make improvements where necessary, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could be a force in the playoffs next year. As for the Spurs, this sweep just highlighted how dangerous this “old” team really is. Whoever gets them in the Western Conference Finals will certainly have their hands full.

Don’t hang your heads, Clippers fans. Lob City got a tough matchup and will be back next year.

Spurs Rally From 24 Point Deficit, Build 3-0 Lead On Clippers

The Clippers were already down 2-0 and needed to play desperate. They had been dominated on their opponent’s court but now had the chance to play at home to try and gain some momentum back. For awhile, it looked like Los Angeles was going to shorten the series deficit to 2-1 after they jumped out to an immediate 33-11 lead at the end of the first quarter. They even built their lead up to 24 in the second. But even with all of that going their way, the Clippers still couldn’t overcome the resilient and offensively charged San Antonio Spurs, who used a 24-0 run in the third quarter to battle back and snag a 3-0 series lead with a 96-86 victory in Game 3.

Tony Parker led the Spurs with 23 points and 10 assists and Tim Duncan finished with 19 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks after a prolific third quarter. Kawhi Leonard had 14 and Manu Ginobili added 13 off the bench. Despite San Antonio’s incredibly slow start, Greg Popovich’s squad picked it up after a dreadful first quarter and outscored the Clippers in each of the following three. The Spurs cut Los Angeles’ lead to 10 at halftime and then took a commanding lead in the third by outscoring Lob City 26-8 in the period. The Clippers’ awful shooting and numerous turnovers gave San Antonio the edge in the third and facing an eight point deficit entering the final period, LAC wasn’t able to regroup and challenge the Spurs’ lead the rest of the way.

Blake Griffin had a fantastic game, but the Clippers are still waiting for Chris Paul to show up in this series.

Blake Griffin had a phenomenal game for Los Angeles, finishing with 28 points, 16 rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Unfortunately, he received little help from his teammates other than Mo Williams, who had 19. Caron Butler failed to score, Randy Foye only put up seven and Nick Young couldn’t make up for either of them with just nine. But the biggest disappointment, once again, was Chris Paul. Paul has a reputation for his indomitable will and his ability to turn any team into a contender during the playoffs. Against the San Antonio Spurs, however, he has been completely and unequivocally outplayed by Tony Parker. Paul finished with 12 points and 10 assists, which isn’t a shameful stat line by any means, but for CP3? That’s nowhere near enough. The Clippers have only had one consistent scorer in this series (Griffin) while their role player/bench guards alternate having good games (Foye, Williams and Young). Without Chris Paul scoring 20+ a game, it’s amazing Lob City has been within reach in a few of these games. The Spurs are certainly looking like the toughest team in the Western Conference and, based on what I’ve seen from around the league in the past few days, are my heavy favorites to win the NBA Finals at the moment. However, they’ve definitely benefitted from Paul’s disappearance during this series.

There really is no hope for the Clippers this season any more. On the one hand, it’s impressive they were able to make it this far in their first year together after some major roster improvements and upheavals. Lob City should be commended for entertaining us all year long with YouTube highlights, for reaching the second round with such a terrible coach as Vinny Del Negro and for doing all of this without Chauncey Billups or a quality offensive center (sorry, DeAndre Jordan, you just haven’t panned out like we hoped). It will be interesting to see how good this team can be with Billups back, especially if LAC can find a way to improve at the small forward and center positions. We should all definitely keep an eye on this team next year. But in the end, losing Game 3 was pretty much the nail in the coffin and after such a monumental/demoralizing comeback/collapse, I’m predicting a sweep. Tony Parker has continued his postseason dominance, outplaying one of the best point guards in NBA history. Tim Duncan has found a way through stellar technique and perseverance to outplay younger and more athletic power forwards and centers. And the Spurs’ bench is just too much for any defense to handle right now. So at the end of the day, the outcome of Game 4 doesn’t really matter. The Spurs would certainly like to win and get more rest, but even if Chris Paul finally does show up and the Clippers get a W at home, San Antonio has this series in the bag already.

The Clippers have had a great year, but Tony Parker and the Spurs will advance convincingly.

Grizzlies Stay Alive

After blowing a 27-point lead at home in one of the biggest playoff collapses in NBA history, it’s safe to say Memphis’ 105-98 Game 2 victory over the Clippers on Wednesday might have saved the series. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin gave LAC everything they had, but an all-around team effort from the Grizzlies took care of business and tied the series at one game apiece.

A second loss at home would have sent Memphis to Los Angeles facing a 2-0 deficit and the very real possibility of a sweep, but the Grizzlies seemed determined to not let Game 1’s unbelievable collapse affect the rest of the series. Rudy Gay led the team with 21, but everyone came out firing on all cylinders: O.J. Mayo had 20 points off the bench; Mike Conley played well against Chris Paul again with 19 points and 6 assists; Zach Randolph and Marreese Speights made up an effective 1-2 punch yet again and combined for 26 points and 13 rebounds; even Tony Allen, who is not known for his offense, chipped in 10 points, which made up for Marc Gasol’s poor shooting night. On the Clippers side of things, Chris Paul (29 points, 6 assists, 5 steals) and Blake Griffin (22 points, 9 rebounds) did their part, but no one other than Mo Williams and Nick Young really contributed very much. Bobby Simmons, who started in place of the injured Caron Butler, had nine points in his debut and shot effectively, but couldn’t quite make up for Butler’s absence.

O.J. Mayo’s instant offense off the bench has been huge for the Grizzlies so far.

With the series shifting back to Los Angeles, the Clippers still did what they had to going into Memphis: they got a valuable road win and head back to their home court for the next two games. If they take care of business at home, the Clippers exponentially increase their chances of moving on. Memphis put itself in a tough position by dropping Game 1 in such remarkable fashion, but can atone for that mistake by picking up a win on the road in Game 3 or 4. They’ll need to bring the same all-around effort, scoring and defense they had in Game 2 and the majority of Game 1 to do so. If they can also limit the Clippers to just Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, those two guys alone can’t beat this balanced Grizzlies team. CP3 and Griffin will continue to shine and grab highlights, but as long as Memphis doesn’t allow the Clippers’ role players to play well, they will have a big advantage. Another key factor will be making Los Angeles turn the ball over. In Game 2, the Grizzlies got their hands on 13 steals as the Clippers turned the ball over 20 times. If they can continue to get steals while limiting their own turnover (only 12 for the Grizzlies in Game 2), they will take valuable possessions away from an athletic and offensive-minded Clippers team.

On the Clippers side of things, Los Angeles’ depth took a huge hit when it lost Chauncey Billups earlier in the season and now it will have to adapt again with Caron Butler gone. If the Clippers bench can find a way to pitch in some points, Los Angeles will have a huge advantage for the remainder of the series with three of five possible remaining games being played at Staples Center. Chris Paul needs to take better care of the basketball and LAC needs to take care of business at home today to send the message that all that really mattered from that road trip to Memphis was the Game 1 victory. In what will be their first home playoff game in years, nerves and history can’t get in the way of playing a fundamentally sound basketball game. The highlights will come, but the Clippers just need to worry about taking care of the ball and not allowing the Grizzlies’ good defense to translate into offense. Rebounding will also be key, as they were out-rebounded 37-28 in Game 2. If the Clippers take care of the basketball, rebound and get some offensive production out of their bench, they will get their first playoff victory in what feels like forever for LAC fans.

Chris Paul committed five of LA’s 20 turnovers in Game 2. This can’t happen again, especially with no Caron Butler.

LeBron In The Fourth

This headline should look old and almost foreign to anyone who’s followed LeBron James over the past few years. But after last night, it’s the most accurate one to describe how the Heat got such an improbable win over the Nets after trailing for the majority of the game: LeBron’s clutch fourth quarter performance lifts Miami past New Jersey. Wait, what? Is this an evergreen story somebody wrote when LeBron was back in Cleveland? King James hasn’t shown up for the fourth quarter in Miami….ever!

But it’s true. Last night, LeBron James was the definition of clutch. You can chalk it up to Dwyane Wade being out. You can say it only happened because it was against the Nets. You can even just call it a fluke and say it won’t happen again. But the fact remains: when LeBron James attacks the basket in the fourth quarter and in the final minutes of most games, something good usually happens for his team.

I’m not foolish enough to say that LeBron James scoring the last 17 points for his team in a game against the lowly Nets excuses him for the past year and a half of vanishing and deferring to teammates in the clutch. It doesn’t even qualify him as a good crunch-time player. But if all of ESPN’s sportswriters aren’t going to give LeBron enough credit to put this on paper and point it out for the world to know, somebody’s got to: LeBron James can be a clutch player again if he just keeps attacking the basket.

LeBron James did the smart basketball thing by attacking the basket in the fourth quarter.

There’s no denying statistics; often, when a so-called “clutch player” gets the ball on the final play, goes one-on-one with his defender and takes some ridiculous fadeaway jumper with a hand in his face to win the game in dramatic, memorable fashion, his team’s chances of winning go way down. Guys like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups and even guys like Derrick Rose and Chris Paul have reputations of being great clutch players for some of the fantastic game-winners they’ve hit in their time. But how many do they miss? How many times does their team lose because of that one-on-one, last-second-heroics BS? The fact is, when the game is on the line, if the guy with the ball in his hands attacks the basket (instead of dribbling around for five seconds and then launching some hopeful fadeaway jumper), his team’s odds of winning go way up.

If a clutch player goes to the rim and tries to draw contact, one of four things happens: 1) The guy gets by his defender and makes a game-winning layup/dunk or at the very least, drains a short-range shot. 2) The guy gets enough speed going and draws enough contact to get to the free throw line. 3) The defense commits to stopping the drive with help, leaving shooters on the perimeter wide open. 4) The defense makes a great play and actually earns the victory. Ask any defender late in the game what’s easier to stop: a guy full of steam attacking the basket and possibly finding open shooters after penetrating, or a proud superstar wasting valuable seconds (that could be used for a rebound and put-back on a miss) and jacking up some stupid contested jumper? They’ll tell you it’s the guy attacking every time. It’s just good team basketball. Instead of running some isolation play and putting the fate of the game in one guy’s hands, why not do the intelligent thing and go to the hole, increasing your chance of scoring, getting fouled or freeing up teammates? It’s just the smart basketball play and that fact doesn’t change just because we’re talking about the NBA. As much as we wish there were, there won’t be another clutch player like Michael Jordan.

Everybody wants to do this with the game on the line. But the fact is, there was only one Michael Jordan. So be smart and attack the basket!

So going back to LeBron, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he didn’t make every lazy jumper he took in fourth quarters and we rightfully labeled him as a disappearing act. “This is still Dwyane Wade’s team; D-Wade is the one making the big shots in the fourth quarter and keeping his team alive in close games down the stretch. Hell, Chris Bosh seemed like a better option than giving LeBron the ball in the fourth!” But did anyone stop to think about why LeBron seemed completely absent in the fourth? I’m sure some of it has to do with LeBron and D-Wade struggling to work out who is the alpha dog with the game on the line. And in the NBA Finals last year, it was true that he was vanishing because he was flat-out not shooting the ball. But the other part of it is shot selection. While LeBron spends the first three quarters attacking the basket and making pressure-free jumpers, once the fourth quarter rolls around, he settles for easy jump shots he can get at any time. And it’s true, sometimes he’s had games where he’s attacking the rim but doesn’t get results and so we still label him as a disappearing act. And there’s also nights were he finds wide open teammates for game-winning shots, but nobody praises him for drawing double teams and finding wide open guys because his teammates miss the shot and all we remember is that LeBron is adding to his developing legacy of disappearing in the fourth. But when he attacks the rim throughout the final period like he did last night, he’s nearly impossible to stop. There’s a reason he scored those 17 points straight: he went hard to the basket, made contested layups because of his size, speed and strength, and drew contact and got to the foul line.

LeBron James’ legacy is still developing. There’s no question we think less of him for losing a championship by himself and then another one once he had D-Wade and Bosh on his side. It definitely didn’t help that the second lost Finals had a lot to do with his blatant absence in the clutch. He’s failed so many times in the fourth quarter for the Heat that we forget that just a few years ago, we would have given Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron the ball with the game on the line over about 95 percent of the guys in the league. Hopefully LeBron takes last night’s game to heart and understands why he was so successful in closing that game. Because if he does, can you think of anything more terrifying than watching your team play the Heat in a close game with LeBron James driving hard to the basket like a runaway freight train? I can’t.

Is LeBron clutch? Not anymore and not yet. But can he get there by going to the hole in the fourth? I say yes.

Western Conference Standings Update

For Easter, we focused on the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, there’s no clever way of saying today is going to be about the West, so let’s just jump right in. The standings have shifted dramatically night in and night out over the past few weeks, and though I’m confident my Western Conference playoff predictions will be close, win streaks by the Rockets, Grizzlies and now even the Nuggets need to be factored in. So here we go:

Oklahoma City Thunder – Despite dropping a home game against the Clippers, the Thunder should stay confident and cruise to the number one seed. After taking the top seed in the West, the Spurs had lost two straight before ending the Grizzlies’ win streak last night. So as long as OKC continues to do what it has done all year, the Thunder will remain the dominant favorite of their conference, even if they are only a half game ahead of the Spurs right now. Durant and Westbrook have been trading good games back and forth; once they get back on the same page there should be no problems. Also, keep an eye on James Harden; this Sixth Man of the Year has been extremely mediocre lately and the Thunder will go far if he can pick his play up.

The Thunder will need this guy to pick his game back up if they want to win it all this year.

San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs were looking like they could be a huge surprise and take the top seed in the West….until Gregg Popovich pulled a Gregg Popovich, resting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, his three best players, and generating a huge discussion on whether or not resting starters down the stretch is “cheating the game.” While I didn’t exactly see it that way, it’s also true that this is the time of year for a team to be peaking and playing its best ball, so resting the starters kind of hurts that momentum (no wonder they came out flat against the Kobe-less Lakers). So even though they’re only a half game back, that’s why San Antonio lost those two games before beating Memphis last night. Knowing Popovich, he will probably rest his starters for the playoffs once it’s clearer what seed they’ll get. Which is why they won’t take the top seed and probably will fall flat in the postseason, Spurs-style.

Will Popovich continue to rest his stars and risk them not being in peak form come playoff time?

Los Angeles Lakers – Inexplicably, the Lakers keep winning without Kobe Bryant on the floor. Los Angeles squeaked out one win (why didn’t God punish Metta World Peace for that ridiculously stupid last-second pass against the Hornets??) and then had an impressive win over the Spurs. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are playing lights out right now, even if Bynum is still a head case. The Lakers have a one and a half game lead over the Clippers at the moment, and I think they will maintain that margin unless Chris Paul puts up 30 points a night for the rest of the season.

Bynum has been playing excellently without Kobe on the floor, but he's still a liability because of his temper.

Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers lost to the streaking Grizzlies, but responded well with a win on the road against the West-leading Thunder and then again against the Timberwolves. It’s tough to figure this team out; they’re good enough to compete with anybody, but without Chauncey Billups on the court, Chris Paul is going to have to do too much down the stretch every night for me to give the Clips a ringing endorsement. LAC will need someone else to step up, and with the Grizzlies only one and a half games back, the Clippers could fall to the fifth spot. Either way though, they should be preparing for a matchup with Memphis in the playoffs.

Chris Paul and his continuing ability to be clutch for the Clippers will determine how far they can go.

Memphis Grizzlies – Memphis has won seven of their last 10 games and has succeeded in putting some temporary distance between them and the rest of the pack in the lower half of the West. Rudy Gay’s phenomenal play and Zach Randolph starting to find his rhythm is the reason for the Grizzlies’ win streak, which has put them in the fifth spot and only a game and a half game behind Los Angeles. Whether or not they overtake the fourth seed is irrelevant, because at this point, it looks like we will be seeing a Clippers-Grizzlies first round matchup.

Rudy Gay is the driving force behind this surging Grizzlies team.

Dallas Mavericks – The defending NBA champs have seen some struggles in the past few weeks and are now only a half game ahead of Houston and Denver, who are at 10 games back. However, Dallas owns the tiebreaker and is currently sitting precariously in the six spot. I’ve gotta give the edge to the Mavs here; they have the experience in Jason Terry and Jason Kidd as well as the leadership in Dirk Nowitzki. Unless Denver continues to play on another level for the rest of the season, the Mavericks are favorable to take the sixth seed.

Dirk and the Jet will look to make some noise in the playoffs with their championship experience.

Houston Rockets – The Rockets put a nice little string of wins together thanks to incredible play from backups Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee before dropping a game to Utah on Wednesday. Lowry surprisingly returned to the court on Sunday, but he’s not quite up to speed and I think it’s safe to say his return threw off the team chemistry a little bit. The Rockets are currently sitting in the seventh spot, but don’t be surprised if Denver and possibly even Utah give them a run for their money.

Goran Dragic is a huge reason why the Rockets are in the playoff hunt right now.

Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets haven’t panned out exactly like I though they would this year, but with Gallinari back, Denver is a completely different team. Kenneth Faried has filled in since Nene left, Ty Lawson is an effective point guard, Arron Afflalo has been on a hot streak and the Nuggets have an abundance of role players  who all consistently contribute. With Denver, Houston, Dallas, Utah and Phoenix all vying for the six, seven and eight seeds, I see Denver winning more games than everybody except Dallas the rest of the way.

Danilo Gallinari and Arron Afflalo will try to show the world how good Denver can be.

Utah Jazz – It was easy to pick the Jazz as making the playoffs when they had a six-game win streak going, but I don’t think they can outwin Houston or Denver to make the postseason. They did just beat the Rockets and are only one and a half games back, but Devin Harris’ inconsistent play is going to prevent this team from reaching its potential. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are great, but only Gordon Hayward has been playing consistently well in the backcourt.

If only Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap could get some more help from the backcourt.

Phoenix Suns – The Suns are perfect at teetering between a playoff squad and a team that is going to come up just short. Unfortunately, Phoenix can’t win the big games when they need them the most and that fact alone will keep Steve Nash and company away from the postseason. It’s disappointing considering how dramatically improved this team has played in the second half of their season, but the Suns will probably come up short again, even with Grant Hill returning to action today.

Sorry Suns fans. It doesn't look like Nash and Hill will get a look at a playoff run this year.

Clippers Streaking

The Clippers are one of three teams in the NBA right now with a winning streak of at least five games. Despite my prediction that Dallas would swoop in and steal the fourth seed from the LAC in the West, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have had other things in mind. The Clippers have won six in a row, are one and a half games ahead of the five seed (Memphis) and are only one and a half games behind the Lakers for the third seed.

Luckily for the Clippers, they have a chance to cut that lead to a half-game in a matchup with the Lakers in the Battle for LA tonight. With Andrew Bynum looking like he will be watching from the sidelines, LAC looks like it’s primed for a big win to move further up in the playoff race.

How have the Clippers gotten here? They have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA, but have found a way to beat four playoff-hopeful teams in their six-game winning streak (Memphis, Phoenix, Utah and Dallas). The answer is two-fold: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. CP3 is running the game like no other point guard in the NBA right now, deferring to his teammates and distributing the ball before taking over close games in the last five minutes. Meanwhile, Blake Griffin’s sheer athleticism is getting him double-doubles  intimidating posterizations that demoralize the opposition.

Chris Paul has complete control of the game, even when he's not scoring. In the last five minutes of a close game, watch out.

Vinny Del Negro’s coaching continues to show flaws, such as the Clippers’ sometimes stagnant half-court offense. It seems to either be Lob City or that slowed-down, half-court game that hinders LAC’s play. But with Paul and Griffin playing so well, the Clippers have been able to keep on winning.

Tonight’s matchup will be a very telling one for the Clippers. LAC needs this win, especially if Bynum isn’t going to play. A win would shorten the gap between the Clippers and the Lakers to a half-game. Considering Kobe Bryant’s shooting percentages for the month and the Lakers’ problems with Andrew Bynum, it’s not out of the question that the Clippers make a statement win in Los Angeles tonight.

I still believe the Clippers’ rough remaining schedule will take its toll, and I don’t think they will outwin LAL for the rest of the season to grab that coveted three seed. The loss of Chauncey Billups and Vinny Del Negro sticking around will probably take their toll in the postseason. But I do think people need to give this team credit and watch out for them in the playoffs with the way they’re playing right now. They may not be the heaviest of contenders in the West, but at the very least they will give any contender a run for their money.

Blake Griffin continues to put the fear of God in his opponents.

Western Conference Predictions

The West always seems to come right down to the wire in determining its eight playoff teams, and this year is no different. Only 3 and a half games separate the fourth seed in the Western Conference from the tenth spot, meaning that these next few weeks will be critical, not only to determine postseason matchups, but also which teams even get in. Here are my predictions for who will end up in seeds one through eight, including which last three teams will be left out in the end.

1) Oklahoma City Thunder – This one is fairly easy since the Thunder currently have kept their distance from the rest of the West all season long and have now won four straight. It would take a meltdown for OKC to relinquish its number one seed to San Antonio, especially since Gregg Popovich will likely rest his older players as his team’s position in the West becomes more set in stone at the two spot. And despite the fact that OKC has a formidable schedule down the stretch (Chicago, Miami, LAL twice, LAC twice, and Indiana), this is the time of year they could send a message by finishing strong and locking that first seed down. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing great ball as always, but if James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins continue to play the way they have been, no one’s going to beat the Thunder in the postseason.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of their supporting cast are too good to not lock up the number one seed.

2) San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs could make a push for the first seed, but knowing Gregg Popovich and his older players, San Antonio might just coast in their last few games unless the Lakers and everyone else in the West puts serious pressure on them for the second seed. This seems unlikely since the Lakers are still four and a half games behind the Spurs. San Antonio usually cruises into the postseason and tries to make the switch as soon as the playoffs start, and this season should be no different since the Spurs have a pretty favorable path to the end of the regular season. Plus, Stephen Jackson’s promising play and the recent signing of Boris Diaw and backup point guard Patty Mills should add further depth to an already impressive San Antonio bench. I don’t see the Spurs letting the gap dissolve with such a favorable remaining schedule and they should easily take the two spot.

The Spurs have added valuable role players recently, including Boris Diaw.

3) Los Angeles Lakers – Despite Kobe only shooting 37.8% from the floor in his past six games, the Lakers are currently two games ahead of the Clippers and Mavericks for the third seed. Although Vinny Del Negro received a vote of confidence from his owner and GM and the Clippers no longer have to worry about a firing tearing the team apart, they still have to worry about the negative effect of the fact that Del Negro is staying: the fact that Del Negro is staying. The Clippers will still lose some games because of his poor coaching and a lack of floor experience (Chauncey Billups), and the Mavs have been too hit-or-miss this season to put a run together. So I don’t see LA falling to the fourth spot unless this whole Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe-Bryant-and-now-Andrew-Bynum thing gets blown even more out of proportion to the point that there’s disunity in the locker room (which would eventually lead to Brown getting the axe). Bynum shouldn’t have shot that ridiculous 3-pointer, but Brown needs to tread carefully; the Lakers have been looking like contenders recently, so there’s really no reason to create drama now.

If Andrew Bynum continues to make a big deal about getting benched, there will be problems in Los Angeles.

The last five seeds are really a toss-up at this point, but here’s how I think things will unfold:

4) Dallas Mavericks – Dallas has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA and has been hit-or-miss all season. However, Dirk Nowtizki has been on a tear lately, averaging 25 ppg this month, and another team with a tough remaining schedule is the LAC, who is their biggest competition for this spot. Jason Terry and Dirk bring the leadership necessary for this veteran team to start peaking at the right time. Terry, Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois have all increased their offensive production in March. Dallas has a horrendous lineup waiting for them, with a particularly rough upcoming stretch (Miami, Orlando, LAC, and Memphis). But if they can get through it with a few wins they get a slight break before taking on the rest of their challenging schedule (Utah, Houston, LAL, Chicago and Atlanta).

Dirk has been putting up big numbers for the Mavs in March.

5) Los Angeles Clippers – LAC’s tough remaining schedule and Vinny Del Negro’s job security will prevent the Clippers from keeping their current spot as the fourth seed in the West. The Clips’ remaining schedule includes OKC twice, LAL, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and New York. Chris Paul brings playoff experience, but I don’t think it will be enough to guarantee this team the fourth seed compared with Dallas’ veteran experience and superior coaching. Mo Williams being out for a few weeks is also a big blow to LAC’s bench that Randy Foye and Nick Young might not be able to fill. The Clippers won’t fall apart, but I don’t think they have the chemistry and floor leadership without Chauncey Billups to net that four seed.

Can Chris Paul and Blake Griffin carry the Clippers any higher than a five seed?

6) Memphis Grizzlies – As much as I like Memphis to make some noise in the playoffs this year, their remaining lineup of opponents does not favor the Grizzlies. This season, Memphis is 17-18 against teams in the Western Conference and 12-17 against teams .500 and above. Of the Grizzlies’ remaining 18 games, 13 are against teams in the West and 10 are against teams at or above .500. So despite Zach Randolph’s return and the signing of Gilbert Arenas (which I’m still waiting to be excited about), I don’t see the Grizzlies out-winning the Clippers or Mavs. However, they should grab the six seed and pick up wins against the lesser teams they play thanks to their solid 15-4 record against teams under .500.

Does Zach Randolph have any playoff magic in store for us this year?

7) Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets have struggled this season and never lived up to the West powerhouse they looked like they would become, but their remaining opponents aren’t too intimidating. Denver really only plays the Magic twice, LAL, LAC and OKC to close the season, and their matchup with the Thunder comes at a time when OKC should be resting their starters. However, the Nuggets have been too inconsistent lately to put them higher than a seven seed for now (they beat the Derrick Rose-less Bulls and then lose to the Raptors?). Kenneth Faried stepping up with Nene gone has been huge, but injuries have crippled this team’s chemistry at times (Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos), and no one has been able to fill the void left by Gallinari.

Kenneth Faried has been a pleasant surprise for the Nuggets this year, but Denver needs Gallinari back.

8) Utah Jazz – I’m still not entirely convinced about Utah. They had a nice winning streak but the biggest reason I’m putting them in the final spot is that I don’t like Houston without Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin and Phoenix is too far behind to catch up. The Jazz have an 11-19 record against teams above .500, and 9 of their last 15 games are against teams that fit that description. The Jazz have definitely turned their season around, becoming one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but I still don’t think they will get the wins they need to pass Denver or Dallas.

The Jazz need Al Jefferson to just keep plugging away.

Didn’t Make the Cut: Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves

9) Phoenix Suns – The Suns are currently only two games back in the playoff race at the ten spot, but I don’t see them closing the gap in time. The Suns have an incredibly tough remaining schedule: Utah twice, Denver twice, LAL, Memphis, OKC, LAC and San Antonio twice. There are too many other teams in the driver seat that the Suns need to lose for me to have any confidence in their playoff chances. If the season wasn’t shortened to 66 games, they’d have a better chance, but there are no guarantees that Phoenix’s hot streak is anything but a desperation push for the postseason. With Utah and Denver looking to turn things around and hold on to their current standings, the Suns will be hard-pressed to beat those teams along with the other powerhouses coming up, so even though I think they will make a run at it thanks to their dramatically improved bench play, I don’t think there’s enough in the tank for Phoenix this year.

Sorry, fellow Suns fans. I just don't see it happening this year.

10) Houston Rockets – I labeled the Rockets as playoff pretenders a long time ago, so Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin missing extended time during the most critical stretch of the season doesn’t help. Goran Dragic definitely stepped up in Lowry’s absence, but now he sprained his ankle and I don’t see this team having enough to get back into the playoff picture. Houston has a much more likable remaining schedule than their competition for a playoff spot, but the Rockets have shown they’re just as capable of beating anyone as they are losing to anyone and I don’t see them grabbing a spot. Unless Phoenix falls away and we see a complete Denver collapse, that is. And the Nuggets’ loss to the lowly Raptors last night shows there’s definitely a possibility of that happening, so Houston fans shouldn’t despair just yet. But I still don’t see it happening for Houston this year.

Dragic filled in nicely until he got injured. Houston is running out of offensive options.

11) Minnesota Timberwolves – Rubio is down. Nikola Pekovic is going to play in pain. JJ Barea is out for the time being. The Timberwolves are 2 and a half games back. Kevin Love is playing out of his mind and Minnesota is still having problems getting much-needed wins. It would take a miracle at this point for the T-Wolves to make the necessary push for a playoff run.

So there are my picks for the Western Conference. Do I have them right? Who did I leave out unfairly and who should be higher or lower on the list?

One man. One beard. One playoff dream barely still alive.

Recent Trends Around the League

Overtime seemed to be a theme of last night’s NBA action. Let’s take a look at which teams are going in the right direction and which squads need to start regrouping.

Contrary to my prediction that the Orlando Magic would slow down and start losing because of all the Dwight Howard trade speculation, they have done anything but that. They have not only maintained their position at the third spot in the East, but have distanced themselves from Philadelphia in the fourth spot. The Magic responded from an awful loss to the Bobcats with impressive, Howard-dominated wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (in overtime). This team will continue to go as Superman goes, but for the time being, Dwight Howard is unstoppable.

But nobody looks as underachieving as the New York Knicks right now. The Knicks are suffering a six-game losing streak, have lost eight of their last 10, and are not shaping up to be anything more than a dysfunctional team with too many scorers (although they looked a lot better in their competitive contest with the Bulls). And no, the main problem is NOT Carmelo Anthony. Jeremy Lin’s offensive production has declined, but the biggest problem in NY has been Mike D’Antoni. I’ve never thought much of D’Antoni’s coaching, and this stretch of losing with so much talent isn’t helping. Another giant problem is Amare Stoudemire, underachieving on both ends of the floor while taking up the majority of the Knicks cap space ($83 million through 2015 to be exact). When Amare, Lin and Melo play well at the same time, they give you competitive performances against teams like the league-leading Bulls. But then you’ve got distractions like JR Smith’s semi-nude pictures on Twitter and all of the media-frenzied “Is Melo the Knicks’ Problem?” controversy. I still think the Knicks will turn things around, but they have fallen out of the number 8 spot in the East, giving it up to…

The Milwaukee Bucks! The Bucks are currently in playoff contention in the East thanks to the Knicks’ losing streak, but also because of their winning streak. The Bucks have won three in a row because of Ersan Ilyasova’s emergence as a superstar. Illyasova is averaging 21 ppg in March so far and has established himself as a great offensive threat. However, Drew Gooden’s revitalization should not be undervalued either. This has all been done without the help of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who were traded yesterday to Golden State in exchange for dynamic scorer Monta Ellis. Things are looking up for the Bucks in the East, especially if the Knicks continue to struggle. But they should keep watch out for the two teams right behind them.

Will Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis be able to coexist?

Which includes the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are led by Antawn Jamison’s scoring presence and rookie star Kyrie Irving’s ability to close games (which he does with intelligence by taking the ball to the rim instead of settling for isolation plays that lead to low percentage jumpshots). Despite their losing record (like the Bucks), Cleveland is still in the playoff hunt.

Speaking of the Indiana Pacers, this team has not lived up to expectations. While I stand behind them as my sleeper pick in the East, they haven’t been getting the quality wins they’ve needed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, losing four straight before a rebound win over the hapless Blazers. Admittedly, those four loses were against the Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic, but this young team needs these type of wins, not only to send a message to the rest of the East, but to gain confidence for when the postseason rolls around. The Pacers have gone 0-for-2 on that front.

The Dallas Mavericks were on a downward spiral lately, losing eight of their last ten before defeating the Wizards last night. Their losing streak dropped them to the seventh spot in the West and was made even worse considering the majority of those losses came to teams under .500 (New Jersey, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State). I still believe the Mavs can be competitive in the postseason, but the same could be said of the Lakers last year, who claimed they would be dangerous in the playoffs despite dropping games during the regular season. And we all know how that turned out.

Remember when the Denver Nuggets were losing games and not even in the top eight in the West? Those days are over. The Nuggets have won six of their last 10 and are currently the six seed in the West. But what’s most encouraging is that Danilo Gallinari and Nene’s return wasn’t even the primary reason for Denver’s surge; now that these two stars are almost back in rhythm, watch out.

Gallinari and Nene led the Nuggets to a big overtime win over the Hawks last night

I’ve already written about the Memphis Grizzlies climbing in the West, but what’s up with the Phoenix Suns? Despite the fact that they were far back in the standings in the West, they have won seven of their last 10 and seem to be turning things around. Steve Nash continues to set up Marcin Gortat for success while Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have steadily increased their production on both ends of the floor. Suns fans should hold their breath for a playoff appearance (both because Phoenix still has a long way to go and because tanking would secure a better draft pick), but this might be a team worth watching if this success continues.

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets suffered season-altering blows in the form of injuries to their star point guards. Ricky Rubio is out for the season with a torn ACL while Kyle Lowry’s bacterial infection will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks, during a critical stretch of Houston’s schedule with the Rockets teetering at the number eight seed in the West. These teams still have playoff hopes and the Rockets did get a great win against the Thunder last night, but these critical injuries will make it difficult on them.

Finally, the battle for L.A. and the Pacific division seems to have swung to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers continue to struggle without Chauncey Billups while the Lakers have won seven of their last 10. During that stretch, LA has beaten the Heat and got an huge double-overtime win in Memphis last night, looking like the much more playoff-competent team right now, especially with Bynum and Gasol getting more touches. Vinny del Negro is coaching his quality team into the ground, and even with Billups’ absence, the Clippers problems are inexcusable.

Andrew Bynum and Kobe powered the Lakers to a double-overtime victory on the road