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

NBA Trade Updates – 6/26/12

Two minor trades have gone down in the past few days with the NBA draft and free agency looming. Here’s a quick rundown:

Bobcats Trade for Ben Gordon – In exchange for Corey Maggette, the Charlotte Bobcats got their hands on Pistons’ sixth man Ben Gordon, along with a 2013 protected draft pick. The move saves Detroit $14 million in the long-term and gives them the 13-year veteran Maggette, who averaged 15 ppg last season despite only playing half of it because of injuries. Maggette has averaged just over 16 ppg in his 13 years in the league and will be a welcome addition after Gordon’s lackluster couple of seasons in Detroit. The trade greatly benefits both sides, as the Bobcats now have a talented albeit streaky shooter in Gordon, and perimeter shooters is an area that Charlotte desperately needed help in. Gordon averaged 12 ppg last year with the Pistons, including one transcendent performance in which he totaled 45 points after making nine 3-pointers without missing.

Detroit traded Ben Gordon and a 2013 draft pick to the Bobcats for Corey Maggette Tuesday.

Houston Rockets ship Chase Budinger to Minnesota – This move isn’t going to drastically alter the fate of either team next year, but it is a slightly curious one for Minnesota nevertheless. The Timberwolves traded their first round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft (number 18) for Chase Budinger and the draft rights to Lior Eliyahu, an Israeli power forward currently playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Budinger averaged just under 10 ppg last season for the Rockets, but the decision to trade a first round pick is slightly questionable considering the talented draft class coming in and the fact that Budinger never really developed into the superstar some predicted him to be. However, the young and talented nucleus of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and others will certainly welcome more points from this new acquisition. For Houston, this move is a smart one, as the Rockets look to make big offseason moves and will need draft picks to either trade (rumor has it they’re going to go for Dwight Howard) or use to bring in more young talent.

The Minnesota Timberwolves received Chase Budinger for the 18th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.

That’s all for now since nothing new has been reported about Ray Allen wanting to join the Miami Heat, but keep checking back to get the latest on NBA free agency and all offseason trades.

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.

NBA Sunday Recap – 3/25/12

Oklahoma City Thunder 103, Miami Heat 87 – Kevin Durant made his case for the MVP award known loud and clear Sunday night, outplaying fellow MVP-frontrunner LeBron James in the Thunder’s dominant victory over the visiting Heat. Durant finished with 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in a matchup many predict to have been a preview of this year’s NBA Finals. James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins had key contributions as well, especially during the Thunder’s second quarter run that established a lead OKC never relinquished. Despite 7 turnovers, Harden finished with 6 assists, and 19 points, 14 of which came in Oklahom City’s second quarter spurt. Perkins had a season-high 16 points while Ibaka had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 22 points and LeBron James pitched in 17, but the Heat never came close in the second half in a thorough win for the Thunder.

Durant's near triple double sent a message to the Miami Heat and the rest of the league

Atlanta Hawks 139, Utah Jazz 133 (4OT) – Utah’s impressive six-game win streak came to an end in a hard fought quadruple overtime game in Atlanta, the first quadruple overtime in the NBA since 1997. The Jazz fell short and were outlasted in the fourth overtime, wasting opportunities to close out the Hawks after having possession on the last play of regulation and each of the first three overtimes. Paul Millsap missed a floater in the lane in regulation. Devin Harris missed a fall-away 3-pointer in overtime. Then Harris’s shot barely rimmed out in double overtime. Finally, Millsap missed a tough 18-footer to close triple overtime. Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 37 points and 8 rebounds and hit a big three to tie the game at 113 with 7 seconds left in double overtime. Josh Smith fouled out with 22 points and 10 rebounds while Zaza Pachulia had 15 points and 20 rebounds. Al Jefferson led the Jazz with 28 points and 17 rebounds while Millsap finished with 25 points and 13 boards. Both fouled out in the final overtime. Utah still holds on to the seventh spot in the West thanks to their prior win streak, holding a tiebreaker over Houston and Denver, who also have a 26-23 record. The Hawks moved ahead of the Pacers into the fifth spot in the East and have won four straight.

Joe Johnson hit big time shots in the clutch for the Hawks

Minnesota Timberwolves 117, Denver Nuggets 100 – Kevin Love followed up his 51-point game against the Thunder with a 30-point, 21-rebound effort in the Timberwolves’ blowout victory of the visiting Denver Nuggets. Minnesota, despite losing Ricky Rubio for the season and playing once again without Nikola Pekovic, is only 2 and a half games out of the eight spot in the West thanks to the recent colossal play from Love. Luke Ridnour added 25 points in the rout of a Nuggets team that is currently in the 9th spot 10 and a half games back and has lost two straight. The Nuggets played without Danilo Gallinari once again, as well as Arron Afflalo who was suspended by the league for one game for throwing an elbow at Gordon Hayward in Friday’s blowout loss to the Jazz. Denver needs to regroup if it wants to make the postseason and doesn’t look anything like the impressive squad we saw at the beginning of the year.

San Antonio Spurs 93, Philadelphia 76ers 76- Philadelphia’s lead in the Atlantic division seems to be slipping away after being routed in San Antonio. Because of Boston’s big win over the Wizards, the Sixers are only a half game ahead of the Celtics and 3 games ahead of the Knicks. The Spurs played without Tim Duncan (rest) and Gary Neal (foot sprain), while the Sixers went without Andre Iguodala (left patella tendinitis). Tony Parker led the Spurs with 21 points and 7 assists. No one from the Sixers had more than 14 points and Philadelphia only scored 27 points in the second half. The Sixers have only hit triple digits 14 times in 49 games this season.

Los Angeles Lakers 96, Memphis Grizzlies 102 – The Grizzlies got a much-needed road win in LA against the newly revamped Lakers thanks to Rudy Gay’s 18 and OJ Mayo’s 16, including a one-man 7-0 run in the fourth quarter to stretch the lead to 13. Andrew Bynum led the Lakers with 30 points and Ramon Sessions added 18, but Kobe Bryant’s slow start prevented LA from building momentum or shortening Memphis’ lead. In fact, Lakers coach Mike Brown benched Kobe for four minutes while being down 10 in the fourth quarter, drawing boos and  “Ko-be!” chants from the crowd. Brown finally obliged, but not before the game was out of reach.

Kobe struggled to find a rhythm and was benched in the fourth quarter for a stretch of time by Mike Brown

Cleveland Cavaliers 83, Phoenix Suns 108 – The Suns are only one game out of the eight spot in the West after throttling the Cavs on the road. Marcin Gortat finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds while Markieff Morris had 22 points of his own off the bench. Phoenix jumped out to a 59-38 lead at the half and never looked back. Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison was injured with a bruised left leg and ankle in the first quarter and left the game. He returned later in the game but was completely ineffective and finished with only 2 points. The Suns have now won six of their last eight.

Boston Celtics 88, Washington Wizards 76 – Avery Bradley’s offensive outburst of 23 points led the Celtics to a needed win over the Wizards, bringing them within a half game of the Sixers in the Atlantic division. Boston played without Michael Pietrus, who sustained a head injury against the Sixers. Ray Allen also sat out with a sore right ankle, while the Wizards went without Nene (back spasms).

Portland Trail Blazers 90, Golden State Warriors 87 – A close contest with the lowly Warriors proved to be a challenge for the Blazers until LaMarcus Aldridge stepped up in the game’s final minute. Raymond Felton lead Portland with 24 points and Aldridge finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds, including a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and a pair of free throws to get his team a 3-point victory. Golden State rookie Charles Jenkins led the warriors with 27 points and David Lee added 16 points and 16 rebounds.

Epic Night in OKC

Despite a monumental effort from Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder outlasted the Minnesota Timberwolves in double overtime with a whopping final score of 149-140. Love finished with 51 points and 14 rebounds, but Wesbrook finished with 45 and Durant had 17 rebounds and 40 points of his own, including a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left that sent the game to double overtime. Durant had put the Thunder up by three with 3.9 seconds left in regulation, but Love hit a three of his own with 1 second left to force overtime. Love had a career-high seven 3-pointers but couldn’t carry the T-Wolves in double overtime as the Thunder never looked back after Westbrook stole the ball and got a three-point play on the first possession.

In addition to all of these impressive stats, James Harden added 25 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists off the bench, including a perfect pass that set up Kevin Durant’s game-tying three in overtime. For the Timberwolves, JJ Barea had a triple double off the bench, finishing with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists.

Love's 51 and Barea's triple double STILL weren't enough for the Timberwolves. Just how good are the Thunder?

The game had a playoff feel despite the fact that only the Thunder look like they will be making the playoffs. The loss was a crushing one for Minnesota, who found a way to compete with the West-leading Thunder despite not having Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic or Michael Beasley. The Timberwolves have been dealing with injury problems since Rubio was declared done for the season with an ACL tear. These injury woes have moved the once uprising T-Wolves out of playoff contention, three and a half games behind the Houston Rockets for the eighth spot in the West.

On a night that saw 289 points combined and plenty of highlights, the Thunder got a solid win, not because of their competition, but because of their stars coming up big in the clutch. Love’s 51 gave OKC a challenge, but Durant once again hit big threes when he needed to and Westbrook led the charge right off the bat in double overtime. Harden showed his value as perhaps the best sixth man in the NBA and Nick Collison gave quality minutes off the bench as well. Fisher also came in and contributed, a very positive sign for the postseason. Even though March Madness probably dominated basketball on television last night, this was one game that was a privilege to watch between Love’s 51, Durant and Westbrook putting on a show and a double overtime match that was highly competitive until the end.

Westbrook got a quick steal and three-point play and the Thunder never looked back in double OT

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