Conference Call: Hornets 2 games out of eighth

Monday, February 15, 2010
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

After a historic weekend in Dallas, the 2010 All-Star festivities have concluded, meaning it’s time for NBA players and teams to get back to work. The Hornets will hold their first post-All-Star break practice this afternoon at the Alario Center, beginning preparations for Wednesday’s home game against the Utah Jazz and the remaining 29 games of the regular season.

The last two months of the regular season will determine whether the Hornets qualify for the playoffs a third consecutive time – each year since they made their full-time return to New Orleans – or sit out the postseason for the first time since 2007.

There is a relatively full slate of games in the NBA tomorrow night, but with Mardi Gras culminating Tuesday, the league did not schedule the Hornets to return to the court until Wednesday. As the second portion of the campaign commences, let’s take a closer look at the congested Western Conference playoff race, starting with the leaders of the Hornets’ Southwest Division, the Dallas Mavericks:

4, DALLAS 32-20 (4.5 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Tied 1-1. Remaining games: Feb. 28 at Dallas, March 22 at NOLA.
Schedule difficulty: Easy. The Mavericks have 17 of their 30 remaining games in Dallas and 13 games against teams currently below .500.
Analysis: Dallas made an outstanding trade during the All-Star break, adding small forward Caron Butler and center Brendan Haywood, while only giving up 2009-10 disappointment Josh Howard and the somewhat sparingly used Drew Gooden. On paper, they appear to be in strong position to hang on to the division lead. Dallas has a stretch from March 3-17 when they face seven straight sub-.500 opponents.

5, SAN ANTONIO 30-21 (3 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Spurs lead 2-0. Remaining games: March 1 at NOLA, March 5 at San Antonio.
Schedule difficulty: Very tough. The Spurs’ 19 road games remaining tie them for the most of any team in the entire NBA. Only eight of their final 28 games are against teams that currently have losing records.
Analysis: For the first time in the Tim Duncan era, Gregg Popovich sounds legitimately concerned that his team is not progressing at its usual steady race heading into March and April. Like with Boston, nagging injuries seem to be a constant for San Antonio. With that said though, this wouldn’t be the first time people have counted out the Spurs – only to see them go on a second-half tear.

6, OKLAHOMA CITY 30-21 (3 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Tied 1-1. Remaining game: March 10 at Oklahoma City.
Schedule difficulty: Average. The Thunder’s home-road split is almost exactly even, with 16 home games and 15 road games remaining. OKC has 11 games remaining against below-.500 opponents, which is also middle-of-the-road. One potential negative: more games remaining against the West (23) than anyone else in the conference.
Analysis: Winners of six consecutive games, the Thunder has climbed to a season-best nine games over .500. The way OKC has been playing, it’s much more likely it will move into a top-four seed than drop from its current No. 6 position.

7, PHOENIX 31-22 (3 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Suns lead 2-1. Remaining game: March 14 at Phoenix.
Schedule difficulty: Easy. Among their final 29 games, the Suns have a nice chunk of home games (16) as well as matchups against losing squads (13). They have what could be a pivotal five-game road trip March 28-April 3, but in a rarity, all five opponents are sub-.500 teams. In fact, the Suns only play one road game against a winner after Feb. 28.
Analysis: There are widespread rumors about Amar’e Stoudemire being dealt before the trade deadline (what else is new?), but if the Suns don’t do anything, their chances of qualifying for the postseason seem to be fairly good on paper. They’ve also rebounded nicely from a mid-season swoon, by winning five of their last six games.

8, PORTLAND 31-24 (2 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Tied 1-1. Remaining game: March 27 at New Orleans.
Schedule difficulty: Average. The Trail Blazers have a bigger portion of games against losing teams remaining (13 of 27) than just about anyone else in the race. On the downside, they have only 12 home games left.
Analysis: The best news Portland has received in a long time could be Brandon Roy’s potential return from injury Tuesday against the Clippers. With him back in action, as well as quality sub Travis Outlaw’s expected return within the next week or so, Portland would finally be near full strength (obviously other than the season-ending injuries to Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla).

9, HOUSTON 27-24 (tied with New Orleans)
Season series: Tied 1-1. Remaining games: Feb. 21 at NOLA, April 14 at Houston.
Schedule difficulty: Average. The Rockets’ remaining breakdown is very similar to the Thunder, with an even distribution of home and road games, as well as a reasonable number of below-.500 opponents (13).
Analysis: Technically the Rockets are ahead of the Hornets based on a .001 better winning percentage (.529 to .528). Houston also has a slightly better division record (6-4 to 4-4). It will be interesting to see how the Rockets fare coming out of the All-Star break, because their most recent stretch was their poorest of the season, with a 7-11 record dating back to Jan. 1.

10, NEW ORLEANS 28-25
Conference record: 19-12, tied with Phoenix for third-best conference mark in the West
Schedule difficulty: Very tough. The Hornets only have eight games remaining against teams currently below .500 (Pacers, at Bucks, Warriors twice, at Clippers, Wizards, at Nets, Wolves), which is among the fewest of anyone in the West. Of the 29 games remaining, 16 are at home, but among the opponents in the Hive will be each of the West’s top five teams record-wise, including the Jazz twice.
Analysis: If Chris Paul hits the shorter prognosis of 4 weeks being sidelined by injury, for example, he would return around the March 5 game at San Antonio, meaning he will be out for only seven more games. So far, New Orleans is 7-8 without the three-time All-Star point guard. With some of the other contenders starting to get healthy, the Hornets will need to at least continue to play .500 without CP3 in order to stay within striking distance of eighth.

11, MEMPHIS 26-25 (1 game behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-0. Remaining games: March 3 at NOLA, April 2 at Memphis.
Schedule difficulty: Average. An even home-road split remains, but 13 games left against losing teams is encouraging. On the negative side, the Grizzlies close the regular season with a brutal stretch, facing only one low-caliber foe over the last nine games. Worse, Memphis visits Dallas, San Antonio, Denver and Oklahoma City, all in the final five games.
Analysis: A team no one expected to be anywhere near the playoff race will be watched closely by skeptics in the next week or so. Aside from its 1-8 start to the season, Memphis’ worst stretch so far came just before the All-Star break, when it dropped six of seven games.