Following a stretch of nine losses in their last 11 games prior to the NBA All-Star break, the New Orleans Hornets (33-25) are in the middle of a logjam they wouldve preferred to avoid after theyd been a season-high 15 games over .500 on Jan. 28. The recent slump has helped create a unique situation in which teams status in the Western Conference playoff race could improve or drop multiple spots over any given 48- and 72-hour period. For example, Portland (32-24) is now technically the Wests fifth-place team, but the Trail Blazers are only 1.5 games ahead of Utah and Memphis, both 31-26 and tied for eighth. Heres a closer look at the West race as it relates specifically to the Hornets:
1, SAN ANTONIO 46-10 (14 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: tied 2-2.
2, DALLAS 40-16 (8 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: tied 1-1. Remaining games: March 9 at New Orleans, April 13 at Dallas.
3, L.A. LAKERS 38-19 (5.5 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Lakers have clinched it with 3-0 lead. Remaining game: March 27 at Los Angeles.
4, OKLAHOMA CITY 35-19 (4 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Thunder won 3-1.
Analysis: OKCs remaining schedule for February is formidable, including trips to San Antonio and Orlando, followed by a home game against the Lakers. Its worth noting that even though the winner of the Northwest Division will be assured at least a No. 4 seed based on capturing the division title, the team that lands the No. 5 seed can still earn homecourt advantage in the 4-5 first-round matchup if the 5 has a better overall record.
5, PORTLAND 32-24 (tied with New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-1. Remaining game: March 30 at New Orleans.
Analysis: Though the Hornets and Blazers are each eight games over .500, the Blazers are officially fifth based on a marginally better winning percentage (but NOLA currently holds the tiebreaking edge). Portland is on a six-game winning streak and has a home-heavy second-half schedule, with 15 of its 26 games at the Rose Garden. Of those 15 however, a total of six are against the Spurs, Mavs (twice), Lakers (twice) and Thunder.
6, NEW ORLEANS 33-25
Analysis: With 58 games under their belts, the Hornets have played more contests than any team in the entire NBA. That also means the 24 games remaining is the fewest of anyone. As a result, New Orleans has a few long breaks between games, such as no games between March 19 and 24. Another unusual aspect of the Hornets post All-Star break schedule is that of the 24 games left, six of them (or one-fourth of the slate) are against ninth-place Memphis and 10th-place Phoenix. They also play Dallas and Utah twice apiece. On paper the remaining schedule is relatively difficult, with only eight games against teams that currently have losing records but 13 vs. foes with winning records (Phoenix is exactly at .500).
7, DENVER 32-25 (0.5 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets have clinched it with 2-0 lead. Remaining game: March 14 at New Orleans.
Analysis: The Nuggets are the most difficult-to-forecast team in the West due to the uncertain status of trade talks surrounding leading scorer and best player Carmelo Anthony. If the All-Star forward is traded prior to Thursdays deadline, it seems likely the Nuggets will dip in the race, but that depends on what they get in exchange for Anthony and how quickly they can integrate new players. Denvers upcoming schedule is formidable, including a mid-March road trip to NOLA, Atlanta, Orlando and Miami. The Nuggets first four post-All-Star break games are also challenging (Memphis, Boston, at Portland, Atlanta).
8, UTAH 31-26 (1.5 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: tied 1-1. Remaining games: March 24 at Utah, April 11 at New Orleans.
Analysis: The Jazz are 0-3 since Tyrone Corbin took over as head coach, following the unexpected departure of longtime sideline boss Jerry Sloan, including an uncharacteristic home loss Wednesday to Golden State. Utah has one of the NBAs most difficult remaining schedules, with 10 of the next 15 games on the road. The Jazz have gone 2-7 on the road since mid-January. Unlike the Hornets, the Jazz also have a large number of remaining games against the Wests elite, facing San Antonio, Dallas, the Lakers and OKC a total of six times.
9, MEMPHIS 31-26 (1.5 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 1-0. Remaining games: March 4 at Memphis, April 1 at New Orleans, April 10 at Memphis.
Analysis: The Grizzlies could have as big of an impact on the Hornets 2011 fortunes as anyone, with three more head-to-head matchups, including two of NOLAs final seven regular season games. The second tiebreaking step between teams from the same division is divisional record; at this point New Orleans has a fairly comfortable advantage at 6-3 vs. the Southwest, while Memphis is only 3-6. The Grizzlies are also done playing the Rockets, but have three games left against the Spurs and one vs. the Mavericks.
10, PHOENIX 27-27 (4 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Suns lead 1-0. Remaining games: March 16 at New Orleans, March 25 at Phoenix, April 8 at New Orleans.
Analysis: The Suns appeared headed for a collapse in the weeks following their blockbuster trade with the Magic, but have regained their footing to go 13-7 in their last 20 games. The next three weeks could be pivotal, because the Suns play only one home game between now and March 7. They also have 10 of their next 15 games away from the desert.
11, GOLDEN STATE 26-29 (5.5 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Warriors won 2-1.
Analysis: Among the top 11 teams in the West, Golden State has fewer remaining home games than anyone, with just 11 on the docket. For the Warriors to remain a team thats listed as one with a shot at the 2011 postseason, theyll have to improve greatly on their 7-18 road record. Golden State has a potentially make-or-break, seven-game road trip from Feb. 27 through March 9 that includes a handful of weak opponents.