SECAUCUS, N.J., March 5, 2007 It's never too early to start thinking playoffs unless you're actually playing and coaching on a team that hopes to be there; in that case, just focus on the next game. Fortunately, for the rest of us, even though there are a full six weeks remaining on the 2006-07 regular season schedule, we can take a look at how the rest of the year might play out and look at which teams are in, which are out and which need to do what to nab one of the eight playoffs seeds.
While, mathematically, the only team that's a lock for the postseason at this point is the Dallas Mavericks, there are a number of others that we should just consider a sure thing* and move on.
(* Yeah, yeah, I know, anything can happen and any team can stumble. We'll assume those in the top three or four in each conference will not.)
The Mavs, when you crunch the numbers, are in even if they were to lose every game remaining and finish 50-32. Seven teams in the West have 32 or more losses, with New Orleans/Oklahoma City and Sacramento sitting on exactly 32. The Mavs hold a tiebreaker over each team based on head-to-head records (3-0 with one to go vs. each). Thus, they're in.
Behind Dallas, count in the Suns, Spurs and Jazz, all winning at least two of every three games and playing consistently enough to assume they'll be playing in late April. If they aren't, file their seasons under "colossal failure."
In the East, the gap between Nos. 1 and 8 isn't as wide, but you'd still have to consider it a mere formality that Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and Washington will be playing on. Toronto should also be there and could be a top four seeded team if they hold on to the Atlantic Division lead; they currently have a four-game advantage on second place New Jersey. Even though Toronto is a young squad and hasn't been to the postseason since a 3-2 first round exit in 2002, the Raptors aren't likely to fall out of the playoff picture. They've gone 19-8 since we flipped the calendar to 2007, with three of those losses coming by two or fewer points.
So, with half of the field of 16 accounted for, who's left? And, consequently, who's left out? Let's start in the West:
Yao's return could not come at a better time. Sure, the Rockets weathered the storm without their dominant big man, posting a 20-12 record since he went down with a fracture in his right leg, but the team has struggled since the All-Star break, dropping games to Atlanta, Boston and Toronto. It will likely take Yao a while to work back into shape to put up the 25.9 points and 9.4 rebounds he was pre-injury, but given he and Tracy McGrady are healthy and the Rockets rank fifth in point differential (+4.49), Houston could challenge not just for a berth but for homecourt advantage in the first round.
The Lakers once seemed a lock for the playoffs. Now? Not so much. The team has survived a number of injuries during the course of the year (Kwame Brown, Lamar Odom), but the bodies seem to be filling the trainer's room once again. Odom could be lost for the bulk if not all of the 22 games remaining because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder, the same injury that cut short his 2005 season. Vladimir Radmanovic suffered a slightly different, although more costly for him, at least shoulder injury that will have him sidelined for much of the remainder of the season. And Luke Walton remains out with the sprained ankle suffered in a loss to Charlotte in late January. Those injuries aside, it's hard to picture the Lakers falling out of the picture when Kobe Bryant is healthy.
It's no shock the Nuggets can score in bunches, given the team has two of the top five scorers in the league in its starting lineup, but Denver is yet to find its stride since A.I. joined the team and Anthony returned from a league-imposed 15-game sit down. The two, however, have been on the floor together in only 12 games since, going 4-8 in those contests. As the two continue to work together more, look for the Nuggets to play the up-tempo style George Karl wants from his team and for the Nuggets to be a dangerous first-round matchup for any Western Conference squad. But first, Denver must improve its play against those teams ahead of it in the standings; the Nuggets are 2-13 this season against the other seven teams currently in the playoff picture.
Look for the Hornets to make a late season push and sneak into the playoffs this season. Last year's Oklahoma City-based New Orleans team dropped seven of its final 10 to fall short of advancing to the 2006 playoffs. In November, the Hornets opened the 2006-07 campaign winning eight of their first 11 ball games. Injuries soon hampered the team as it lost Chris Paul, Bobby Jackson, David West and Peja Stojakovic for stretches back surgery has kept Stojakovic sidelined. The Hornets, again, are playing solid ball, posting a better record since the season's mid-way point (12-7) than all but Dallas (14-1), Detroit (13-4), Toronto (12-5) and Phoenix (12-6). One reason for the Hornets' resurgence is center Tyson Chandler, who's been active on the boards averaging 16.1 rebounds per game in the month of February. Chandler is amid a streak of 11 straight games with double digits marks in scoring and rebounding; only Kevin Garnett has had as long a streak this season.
WHO'S LEFT OUT?
L.A. Clippers: Thirteen of L.A.'s final 23 games are on the road, where the Clippers are only 8-20 this season. The team's home schedule, however, might be more frightening: Games vs. the Spurs, Pistons, Jazz, Rockets and Lakers are on tap at Staples.
Sacramento and Minnesota: Both teams have the personnel to be better than they currently are. Both teams also have head coaches in their first season with the club Minnesota's Randy Wittman taking over mid-season. Both teams likely will head into the offseason come mid-April unless a sense of urgency sets in and they start righting the ship.
As we said above, consider the Pistons, Cavaliers, Bulls, Wizards and the Raptors in. As with the Western Conference elite, it would be a disappointment if any of these teams fail to make at least a first round appearance. But who will join them?
Through it all injuries, chemistry issues, off-court incidents the Pacers have managed to persevere time and again in recent years. This season seems no different, as Indy currently rests as a No. 6 seed in the East with a 29-29 record. That mark should be above .500, but the team has gotten walloped in five straight games, losing by double-digit margins in each. Ouch. So, now's the time for the Pacers to lick their wounds and turn things around. Eight of the team's next 14 are on the road, all but one against teams that I'm figuring here will be in the playoffs (the team visits Sacramento tomorrow; see above).
The Magic is not currently in the playoff picture, but, as we learned last year, don't count out this team just yet. Orlando closed out 2005-06 winning 12 of its final 15 contests and fell just short of continuing on. At the outset of this season, it didn't appear another such rally would be necessary, with the Magic turning in a 12-4 record in the season's opening month. The Magic has gone 16-29 since, a record that includes seven losses in the last eight games. The schedule, however, works to the advantage of the Magic. Fourteen of the remaining 21 games are against teams with a current record at or below .500.
Only the Boston Celtics (1969-70) and the Chicago Bulls (1998-99) failed to the make the playoffs the year after winning an NBA title. The reasons were quite obvious: Bill Russell walked away from the game, as did Michael Jordan. The Heat's Dwyane Wade is doing everything he can to salvage this year and give his team a shot at a real title defense. He'll have to wait and see how rehab goes, as well as how his team performs without him. Currently the Heat is in the playoff picture and could stay there if the players step up and show they can win without him. They did so Friday vs. Detroit.
WHO'S LEFT OUT?
New Jersey: The good news is the Nets, losers of their last two, haven't lost any ground in the Atlantic. Bad news is losses to the Celtics and Sixers is no way to head into the Texas triangle. "Everybody has probably written us off," Jason Kidd told the New York Post on Sunday. "But I think we might still be in the playoffs right now. We are. So we haven't shot ourselves in the foot yet." Yes, the Nets are still in the playoff picture at this moment, but will they be when 82 games are in the record books? The Nets could be the team that keeps Wade from suiting up again before the 2007-08 season.
New York and Milwaukee: The Knicks have played better than many expected; the Bucks, worse. Both should be in contention into early April. Despite Michael Redd's return, the Bucks may find there's too much ground to make up.