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.

Way of the Warriors

If you follow the NBA at all, you’ve probably read about how Chris Mullin’s special night of retiring his jersey was ruined by Golden State fans booing Warriors owner Joe Lacob. Even though you feel bad for Mullin, you’ve probably seen the YouTube video a few times and laughed your ass off while watching a flustered Lacob look for support and an irate Rick Barry scold the audience. At first, I was disgusted with these Warriors fans, booing and ruining what should have been a memorable and happy night not just for Chris Mullin but for the franchise and its ever-supportive fans. But then I realized that Golden State fans have every reason to be upset.

I felt bad for both these guys at first, and then I realized Mullin was the only one who deserved better.

Bill Simmons, my favorite basketball writer, lays out the history of the Warriors franchise in a lengthy article detailing how management has brought some of the best fans in the NBA to their knees. A few awful facts stuck out in reading his article about the Warriors over the past 35 years: 1) They’ve missed the playoffs 29 times in 35 years 2) They haven’t had an NBA All-Star since 1997 3) Despite the Warriors’ awful losing records, they’ve had 22 top-14 picks since 1985 and 4) They’ve given away Chris Webber, Jason Richardson, Baron Davis, Antawn Jamison, Gilbert Arenas as well as coaches Rick Adelman, George Karl and Gregg Popovich.

YIKES. If you’re a diehard Warriors fans (and there really is no other kind of Warriors fan), those last four sentences should break your heart. And after all that the franchise has been through, Warrior fans are still some of the best in the NBA. Everyone saw how riled up Golden State’s fanbase can get when they actually have something to cheer about, evidenced by the Warriors’ improbable playoff run as the eight seed in 2007, knocking off the Dallas Mavericks in six games. Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes almost led them past the Utah Jazz in the second round, and even if they were eliminated, the Warriors had reason to stand behind their slogan of “We Believe!” (while also giving us Davis’ wicked dunk over Andrei Kirilenko). But then poor management kicked in, players were shipped off and the Warriors have been reeling ever since (again). Until recently, it was starting to become the era of Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and David Lee.

The '07 playoffs are the best memories Warriors fans have over the last 10 years.

Even if the team wasn’t going to contend, Ellis gave fans something to cheer about. The Warriors had a young and talented core to build around for the future, even if the present could have been better. Mark Jackson was brought on as head coach and it looked like the franchise might return to its 2007-playoff-run glory. But Jackson hasn’t shaped up to be the coach fans prayed for, Curry has been plagued with ankle injuries and the last straw came in the form of the Monta Ellis trade.

I initially defended this trade for Golden State, noting that the Warriors weren’t going to contend anyway, so there really wasn’t much of a problem gearing up for next year by getting rid of a guard (who isn’t as efficient as he should be) for an injured Andrew Bogut and a declining but still decent Richard Jefferson. But I didn’t stop and think about what Ellis meant to Warriors fans. I didn’t recall Golden State’s terrible history over the past 35 years. I failed to take into account the fact that Warriors fans are some of the most passionate in the NBA, and therefore have no reason to be satisfied with tanking this year in order to improve next season. So for Warriors fans, this trade sent their one glimmer of hope and excitement away for an big man with a history of injuries in addition to an old guy with a cap-space-killing contract.

So unfortunately for Joe Lacob, Chris Mullin, and anyone who’s uncomfortable with awkward situations, I have to applaud the Golden State fanbase for booing their owner during that halftime ceremony. It was high time fans made their discontent be known. I can understand his intentions to look at the big picture and improve for next year, but for an impatient fan, a move like trading Ellis is enraging. Fans should try and have hope for the future and feel some shame in blemishing Mullin’s ceremony. But even though Chris Mullin deserved better on his special night, it’s only fair to equally understand that Golden State Warriors fans have deserved better for 35 years.

This image has got to absolutely KILL Warriors fans.

Trade Impact: Richard Jefferson Traded for Stephen Jackson

Well, it looks like we’ll never get to see Mark Jackson’s coaching put to the test by Stephen Jackson. The Spurs traded Richard Jefferson and a first-round draft pick to the Warriors for the newly-acquired Jackson, making his tenure in Golden State last exactly two days.

I have my doubts about this trade for the Spurs. San Antonio is currently second in the West and didn’t really need to make a trade, let alone for a head case like Jackson. Jefferson has been a decent contributor for the Spurs and fits in with the team’s chemistry and older dynamic. Gregg Popovich won’t stand for any of Jackson’s antics, which will either keep him in line or make Jackson’s tenure in San Antonio extremely unpleasant. Jackson’s talent is unquestionable, but he is currently injured and I don’t see him fitting in with the Spurs’ brand of team basketball.

The Warriors are looking a lot better after this trade. In the past two days they’ve gotten their hands on an injured Andrew Bogut and an older Richard Jefferson, but next season might be a significant improvement from this year if Jefferson can stay healthy and Bogut can get healthy. Jackson would have been a liability for a new coach, so the addition of Jefferson is a definite bonus to a team that just gave up their leading scorer in Monta Ellis.

The Spurs dealt Richard Jefferson to the Warriors for Stephen Jackson. Great move for the Warriors

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

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.

When Magic Becomes Kryptonite

With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, talks of the Magic dealing Dwight Howard have all but died down and the general consensus is that Superman will spend the remainder of the season in Orlando. Howard made his intentions of leaving clear a long time ago, but it looks like the Magic are going to take their chances on trying to land a big piece to lure him into staying around a little longer. They take this risk with the knowledge that if they fail, Dwight is free to leave after the season is over and they will receive nothing in return for his departure. Their faith that he will stay either out of loyalty to the city or because they believe they can attract big names is inspiring, but even with Howard, the Magic have seemed to be extremely unpredictable this season.

What’s funny about all of this is that in actuality, the Magic are currently third in the Eastern Conference standings at 25-15. Dwight Howard’s been a monster in the paint, putting up MVP-numbers of 20.7 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1.5 steals per game, leading his team in all four of these categories. Even the NBA All-Star game, which brings in a considerable amount of attention and general good feelings, was in Orlando this year. So why does Superman need to leave? And why do the Magic look so dysfunctional despite their status in the East?

The Magic are third in the East, but they don't look like it when they play. Remember the 31-point loss to the Hornets?

First of all, the current state of the East should be addressed. Atlanta, Indiana and Philadelphia are behind right now, but only because they have played less games. Although the Pacers and Sixers are currently suffering losing streaks, they have shown for the majority of the season that they can win and you can be guaranteed they’ll start climbing back up the standings soon. These three teams will soon deflate the Magic’s seemingly impressive standing in the East, which brings up another problem: what’s wrong with the Orlando Magic.

The Magic have a wealth of problems to deal with. Jameer Nelson’s lackluster season is a big one. Orlando’s lack of a bench beyond JJ Reddick is another. A significant drop in Glen Davis’ production from last year with the Celtics, which is a huge contributor to the team’s lack of a bench, represents another unspoken problem. Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu’s inconsistent 3-point shooting and all-around offensive presence compounds the Magic’s troubles even further (J-Rich’s age and injuries certainly don’t help). But the biggest problem the Magic face might come as a surprise. Because of the lack of a great supporting cast around Dwight Howard, the city of Orlando is starting to realize that the biggest reason for the Magic’s problems is Superman himself.

Jameer Nelson's lackluster season is one of many problems that all stack up into the biggest problem: Dwight Howard wanting to leave.

On paper, that statement doesn’t make much sense. Howard is the most coveted big man in the league for a reason. He’s putting up MVP-numbers this season and is the biggest factor in the Orlando Magic winning games. On a team where Ryan Anderson is the only other bright spot, the majority of the Magic’s success should be attributed to Dwight Howard. But although this is all true, Superman is still the reason for Orlando’s losses and problems. We can point to Nelson and J-Rich not contributing enough, but it must be pretty difficult to focus on your job when your star player and team rock is talking about where he could see himself playing every week. Howard opening his mouth about playing in New Jersey or Chicago or L.A. or Golden State has damaged this team’s chemistry. Yes, the Magic are winning ballgames. Yes, Dwight Howard has stated over and over again that until that trading day comes, he’s giving everything he’s got to the city of Orlando. And yes, Howard has elevated his play to prove that he means what he says. But can anyone really be fooled into thinking that Superman and the rest of his teammates are of sound mind or have any chance at building team chemistry with all this off-court turmoil?

The smartest thing would have been to accept that it’s time to rebuild, find a quality trade for Howard (a decent big man and a dynamic guard/forward would have been ideal) and move on. There were talks of dealing Howard to the Lakers, but the Magic would have been slightly downgrading at the center position, and even if they got both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, they would still be hurting for better guards/forwards. And any chances of Dwight joining Deron Williams in New Jersey faded as the already-downgrade prospect Brook Lopez continues to struggle with injury problems.

This trade doesn't seem likely anymore.

So instead, the Magic switched to trying to keep Howard interested in staying in Orlando by looking at Monta Ellis in Golden State. But the Warriors aren’t interested in what the Magic have to offer (what team should be?), so the only way Ellis is coming to Orlando is if Superman himself ships off for Golden State. Now the Magic are in real trouble, because without the ability to attract any big names, along with several bad losses on the season (a 31-point loss to the Celtics, a 26-point loss to the Hornets and Tuesday’s 16-point loss to the five-win Charlotte Bobcats), Dwight Howard most likely feels like it’s time to move on. The only thing Orlando has going for it in hoping that Dwight Howard resigns with the Magic is that their pure loyalty and love for him persuades him to stick around.

Superman has had an immediate and substantial impact on his team since he first donned an Orlando Magic uniform. The Magic went to the Finals and have been competitive in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the past few years, but have come up just short every time. And every time Dwight Howard takes the court and leads the Magic to a win, I’m reminded of the climactic scene of Superman Returns, where Superman carries a giant growing mass of land and kryptonite away from the citizens of Metropolis, flying higher and higher into the sky where he launches it into space before plummeting to the ground as the kyptonite finally takes its toll. Dwight Howard’s superhuman efforts carry this team, but the kryptonite that is the Orlando Magic has taken its toll and it might not be long before Superman falls right into another city.

Coming soon to an NBA arena near you.