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By Sam Smith | 3.09.2015 | 8:27 a.m. CT
The NBA begins its closing kick this week with all the teams heading into their final 20-game stretch. Spring is here in most of the U.S. with Daylight Savings Time—Mosquito Day in the Midwest, meaning six or eight more weeks of winter until the mosquitos return and you can’t go out, anyway—the days getting brighter and the coaches’ frowns longer.
There’s still plenty of ongoing debates, like for MVP and next coach to be fired. Apparently, Randy Wittman survived when Miami made up only 34 points of a 35-point deficit. There’s the stomach churning race for seventh and eighth in the Eastern Conference, perhaps a bit less excitement about eighth in the Western Conference. But wait until Kevin Durant gets back and finds out Russell Westbrook has become Kobe Bryant. And likes it. There’s not much mystery surrounding the regular season conference winners, except for Paul Millsap changing his first name to LeBron. Though concern in Philadelphia that Joel Embiid might actually be ready to play so they’re looking to trade him for the rights to Greg Oden.
Going back to last October, some of us (Me! Me! pick me) had the Warriors winning the West in the regular season, but no one had the Hawks. I thought they’d moved to Kansas City. I did think the Knicks could make the playoffs and wasn’t sure if Memphis would. So here’s another list: The last regular season look at the best and the worst with it weighted for the teams with the best chance to make the Finals.
- Golden State Warriors - They’ve led from wire to wire, though the NBA doesn’t really have any wires. Now only if they can get through the first round of the playoffs. It’s looking like they’ll hold off Memphis and get maybe the league’s most talented team with two MVP candidates in the first round. They’ve basically led the league on offense and defense all season and Stephen Curry could be MVP. Do they play with enough size? Can you get away with that in the playoffs? We’ll see.
- Memphis Grizzlies - The most well rounded they’ve ever been, and not meaning Zach Randolph being slimmer. With Tony Allen beating up a teammate, they are officially in playoff mode. Nice additions with Jeff Green and Courtney Lee the last few years and they don’t even have time for Vince Carter anymore, who seems mostly on the roster to keep the owner’s game fresh with one-on-one practices.
- Cleveland Cavaliers - I know, they lost to the Hawks last week, but that was without Kevin Love. He played? I thought that was the statue they built to honor him. Distracted that Darryl Morey isn’t lobbying for him for MVP, LeBron perhaps has been depressed of late. But he’s still the defending 2-2 Finals appearance champion. Their trades should help and if Derrick Rose doesn’t yell, “Boo” too loudly at him, Kyrie Irving may still be effective.
- Atlanta Hawks - One of the truly remarkable stories of the season, especially after a summer of controversy amidst racism issues, the team for sale and no one able to name or recognize all their starters. The charge always has been wait until the playoff with that small front line. But they’re 17-4 against the mighty West, top five in shooting offense and defense and with a raucous home arena now that they’ve changed the marquee to say they are showing car races and spring football.
- Oklahoma City Thunder - I know they still are just trying to make the playoffs. But if you want to read the standings they are published every day. The Celtics are the only team in history in 1957 and 1958 with back to back MVPs who are different guys. They remain the league’s greatest dynasty. The 76ers almost did it in the early 1980s with Dr. J and Moses Malone a year apart as MVPs. They won a title. Westbrook has a chance to win following Durant from last season. And they filled holes with the trade for an offensive center and playmaking point guard. Can they beat the Warriors, which seems like the coming matchup? Can they hold off the Pelicans for eighth? The most anticipated first round series ever.
- San Antonio Spurs - They don’t look like they can win it again, and it doesn’t make sense they should after two long runs to the Finals, the heartbreak and domination. They’ve slipped some, the young and the old with Tony Parker a step slow and Kawhi Leonard a step off. But they still play an unselfish version of the game as Atlanta West. Perhaps the most anticipated 2-7 matchup ever. Or 3-6. Or 4-5.
- Chicago Bulls - There’s a big Derrick Rose if in there, but if Rose does return, as expected, and can play at least 25 minutes, which seems likely (lots of modifiers here) and otherwise healthy with the experience for the bench guys in their absence, the size of the front line, the newly discovered shooting and tradition of defense. Yes, we have heard that one before. But if.
- Houston Rockets - Speaking of your ifs. So if Dwight Howard decides to end his retirement. Where has he gone? Howard’s injuries have been minimized because they never were considered season ending, but they are obviously serious and raise questions about his future. James Harden has had a terrific season around all the injuries and keeping the Rockets up toward the top of the West. I have him MVP leader thus far. With Howard they suddenly have dominant size and a true closer. But can you win when every other coach and GM is rooting against your GM?
- Portland Trail Blazers - A few days ago, they probably would have been fifth or sixth on this list. But losing the emotional, defensive oriented and sharp shooting team leading Wesley Matthews for the season was devastating. They’ve quietly done well as an organization with subtle moves and getting Arron Affalo last month probably saves them some, if not propels them that far in the playoffs.
- Los Angeles Clippers - It’s still a problem when you have to defend two of the league’s toughest positions with J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes. And Chris Paul has been starting to haul around Deron Williams’ reputation for not finishing. But as well as they’ve done without Blake Griffin the last month there has to be enough there to be a problem for enough teams.
- Toronto Raptors - They don’t defend much and their guards still cannot pronounce the names of their front court guys for failure to mention them much. But they will small ball the heck out of you with a high scoring game. That’s not supposed to translate to the slower, half court playoff game. But basically only the Pacers play like that anymore.
- Indiana Pacers - Another team that’s likely to make the first round more interesting than the second. They were devastated and decimated by injuries to start the season. They beat the Bulls earlier with guys they cut within days. They’ve gotten healthier, have a tough bench, enforce their physical style and could get Paul George back for the playoffs. Could this have been their plan all along? How does Larry Bird do it?
- Dallas Mavericks - They looked like a top two West team to start the season; well, at least to me. Rajon Rondo seems to have put an end to that. Trading for an All-Star always seems a good idea, except when it’s not. Maybe Rondo isn’t the same after ACL surgery, maybe the flow of the offense stops when he dribbles so much, maybe he found out who Ted Cruz is. Put it this way: Rondo is now watching DeAndre Jordan’s form for free throw shooting tips. Really, a guard at 31 percent. He can’t possibly be trying. The Mavs don’t much look like contenders anymore.
- New Orleans Pelicans - It’s going to be difficult for Anthony Davis to be in contention for these MVP awards unless he makes the playoffs. They’ve had a lot of injuries with Davis having his few annual and Jrue Holiday once again along with Ryan Anderson. So they’re tough to judge, but still seem to have enough talent around often enough to do more.
- Washington Wizards - There’s always a there’s-something-wrong-there team, but you can’t quite figure out what. That’s them. Though coming from the nation’s capital they have company. They’re a physical team that looks built for playoffs with John Wall having his career year. But there’s been indifference, ennui, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside Winston Churchill. Figure that one out. And Paul Pierce just lost to a turtle.
- Phoenix Suns - You obviously shouldn’t make them mad. They got mad at Goran Dragic, so they traded Isaiah Thomas as well. Not that they were any sort of contender, and no one was quite sure what they were doing unless they’d heard e-bay was having a run on guards. Still fun to watch. Not sure what it is, but the Suns basically have played the same style through more than a half dozen coaches over almost 50 years. Maybe you can’t stand still in the desert.
- Charlotte Hornets - They made a nice move for Mo Williams and they may yet get more out of Lance Stephenson. Michael Jordan has been an active and good manager. With Al Jefferson healthier and someone telling Michael Kidd-Gilchrist the elbow goes in, they’ll be a strong contender for that last Eastern Conference playoff spot.
- Utah Jazz - Have finally put together the skeleton of a working team with Rudy Gobert’s defense at center to complement Derrick Favors and the development of Gordon Hayward. It doesn’t sound like a potential championship nucleus because they were unlucky enough to be in the wrong drafts. But they seem to finally have a team again.
- Miami Heat - They seem a bit too fragile with myriad injuries, though they made perhaps the pickup of the season in Hassan Whiteside. And I believe Michael Beasley has seen the light in his return from China. And Goran Dragic. Oh, wait, maybe they will get into the playoffs.
- Brooklyn Nets - Them, too. And probably Miami. OK, everyone, get in there. It’s the race for eight that nobody waits (for). The Nets probably have the best closer in Joe Johnson, though it has been a dysfunctional group at times with coach Lionel Hollins trying to explain basketball and most of the guys saying what’s he won. Championships? Oh, well, but can he break dance? Deron Williams actually has contributed of late along with Brook Lopez back in the starting lineup. Yes he is; no he isn’t.
- Minnesota Timberwolves - Another team much better than who they’ve been because of so many early season injuries. And few of us have ever seen Kevin Garnett so relaxed and enjoying himself he may not even want to bite Joakim Noah any longer. Ricky Rubio’s shooting is coming along, Kevin Martin’s is good and the Cavs may someday put up murals in the image of former player Andrew Wiggins.
- Milwaukee Bucks - They had their season and it was a heck of one for 50 or so games. Winning more games by All-Star than all of last season was one of the best stories of the season. Of course, no one saw it coming then and maybe it’s just too difficult to believe seeing that roster. They’ll get back Jabari Parker, get another pick and if the arena plans continue they’ll be the kings of the Midwest again. OK, but back in contention, at least.
- Detroit Pistons - Can’t wait until Brandon Jennings returns, if he does with Reggie Jackson there. But given the severity of the injury you can understand the deal. Will Greg Monroe walk? Will Andre Drummond make a free throw? Plenty of questions there and another of the bigger tests of whether you can turn a player down for a raise or trade and then coach them.
- Denver Nuggets - Their quitting on Brian Shaw was so bad this time it wasn’t the coach/broadcaster cabal that ripped management but players ripping players. Shaw was no nonsense and they were all nonsense. Afflalo got out of there just in time to save his reputation, but good luck taking on any of those guys.
- Sacramento Kings - With George Karl being their third coach this season, he should probably rent. I’m not sure you ever can succeed in a big way with DeMarcus Cousins unless he fully buys into being a defensive player first like he was for Mike Krzyzewski and USA Basketball. Sure, he can score. He’s well meaning, but undisciplined, and the other guys follow. Karl can fix that, and it should be intriguing to watch him try.
- Boston Celtics - Danny Ainge is one of the better ones in figuring things out. Kevin Love? Nah, wouldn’t look good jumping to an Eastern team from a winner. But he is said to love chowder. They’ve got an almost sort of team that competes hard and basically undersized and just a bit under talented everywhere. But they have something like 157 draft picks in the next four years and among those bottom dwellers to make a move they seem most likely.
- Orlando Magic - Should have been much better with that roster with Nik Vucevic and Victor Oladipo. The Nik and Vic show? They agreed about the better and fired the coach. Scott Skiles comes in and they are in the playoffs. Of course, that is a low bar in the East.
- New York Knicks - They should have made the playoffs, but the one thing Phil Jackson did miss is if you are committed to getting rid of all your players they are not going to sacrifice to help teammates. Who knows if they’ll get a free agent. The Bulls can tell them it’s not easy where you need goulashes. But Carmelo Anthony is a (scoring) star. With J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Amar’e Stoudemire, Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani they did have enough in the East. Sometimes it doesn’t work. So it’s Plan B.
- Los Angeles Lakers - Suddenly Jeanie Buss has been quoted a lot saying they’ll be in contention in three years or there are changes, which sounds like Jeanie is getting ready to be GM. They are years away unless they get very lottery lucky, which is possible and with their guy from last year, Julius Randle, back they’ll have two kids not ready to play. Should make Kobe happy.
- Philadelphia 76ers - I’m running out of jokes. Of course, it is sort of sweet they pulled this con on Philadelphia.They’re saying they have less a plan now than a philosophy. So call it the practice of Absurdism. Couldn’t help myself.