The NBA season is down to its last 25-30 games. The trade deadline, a very active one, has just passed, and jockeying for playoff positioning is what these last few games are all about. The top 2 teams in the league, the Lakers and the Cavs, both have sizable working margins for the top seed in their respective conferences. The Cavs hold a 1-1/2 lead on L.A. for overall home court, should they meet in what seems like an inevitable NBA Finals, so basically, they’re playing against one another from this point forward.
For L.A., the only real question is will Kobe Bryant be 100% come playoff time? An ankle injury can be particularly torublesome (just ask Manu Ginobli) and has the definite potential to recur at the worst possible time, like in the middle of the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers should let him rest as much as possible, get the most out of the time they play without him thinking that they might have to do it again down the line in the playoffs. Home Court advantage isn’t that important in the NBA. You can lose it in the first game of a playoff series. A healthy Kobe is the difference between winning another title and losing. An extra game on the road isn’t.
The Cavs, on the other hand, just got even better with the addition of Antwan Jamison without losing anything except Zadrunas Ilgauskas for a month or so until Washington cuts him and he resigns in Cleveland. They will cruise to the best record in the league, Lebron James will win another MVP award, and they will look like shoe-ins for the Finals. Sound familiar? The pressure once they get to the playoffs will be immense. How they deal with adversity at that point could go a long way in establishing James’ long-term reputation. Another upset loss, and things could get ugly.
The big fight in the East is for second place. There are three teams within 1-1/2 games battling for that spot: Orlando, Boston and Atlanta. The real goal amongst these teams isn’t so much as getting to number two, but not ending up number four. The fourth place finisher not only gets the best of the bottom half in the conference in the first round, they get Lebron in the second. A trip to the conference finals is absolutely dependent on being either second or third.
Orlando is a much more conventional, and much less threatening team this year than they were last season. All of the matchup problems that came from the presence of Hedu Turkoglu are replaced by the ill-advised poor shooting of Vince Carter. And the worst part for Orlando fans, as bad as Carter has been at times during the regular season, you won’t won’t see his true flaws until the games really count. This is a team that, unlike last year, has early upset written all over it.
Boy, do the Celtics look old. Injuries and age have wreaked havoc on this team that only last season looked like a possible repeat champion. But remember how they battled in the playoffs last season, undermanned and battered. They can definitely do that again, and they can certainly pull enough together to win a couple playoff series. But can they beat Cleveland? No way.
Which leaves the team I think will ultimately end up in the second slot, The Atlanta Hawks. They’re young, athletic, deep, and play adequate enough defense to threaten just about anyone. Only two teams in the East have even the slightest chance of taking out Cleveland in a playoff series. This is one of them. The Hawks will get the two seed, eeking out Orlando for the division title, the Celtics get the three seed by a hair’s breath and Orlando finishes in the dreaded number four position.
The bottom half of the conference has two teams capable of being competitive come playoff time, one mediocre team led by a superstar, one team that may have just traded away a playoff spot, and a couple of other distant clubs looking for a miracle. First the bottom.
The Bulls traded John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas for absolutely nothing. Derrick Rose may be a superstar capable of carrying a team somewhere down the line, but these guys simply don’t have the horses. Sure, the trades were designed to open up cap room for the transcendent free agent they expect to sign this off-season, but in the here and now, they’re going to fade and fade hard, right out of the playoffs. The Bucks have played a bit over their head to get where they are at this point. I’m not totally convinced that they can can go on a run that ends up at or over .500. That will leave the final playoff spot in the East in the high-30 win neighborhood. Bottom feeders like the Sixers, who inexplicably made no deadline moves despite desperately needing something, anything to get moving in the right direction again, won’t be able to get there, The Pacers and the Pistons have way too many problems to get hot enough to get it done, and the gutted Wizards and Nets are just garbage. That leaves one team that could possibly get there; The New York Knicks.
After a horrible 4-15 start, the Knicks pulled off a respectable 15-14 run before they’re recent five game losing streak. Can Tracy McGrady still play? No one knows because the Rockets never gave him a chance, even as they were fading out of playoff position in the West. Will he be T-Mac of a few years ago. No, not this soon after microfracture surgery. But will he need to be? Even if he’s still hampered by the knee, McGrady brings a lot to the table for the Knicks, including good shooting and sometime excellent passing. Adding Sergio Rodriguez to play point could be the real kicker in all this. The Knicks would need to go 19-10 or 20-9 down the stretch to have a shot, but they can get it done. I think the Bulls fade, the Bucks tread water and the Knicks sneak up and steal the eighth seed and a playoff appearance. How do you think that development might change the thinking of some high-profile free agents to be?
The Miami Heat are a true one-man band. Dwayne Wade can’t be happy after watching the team strikeout with Phoenix for Amare Stoudemire and Utah for Carlos Boozer, two players who will definitely be elsewhere come next season. Wade will continue to be himself, and keep the Heat heading for the postseason, but it’ll be as number seven in the East, and Wade will be in a new uniform next season, somewhere like Chicago.
The Toronto Raptors resisted the urge to trade Chris Bosh before his inevitable departure, and they have actually become a respectable team in the lower reaches of the conference. They have enough to get above 45 wins, and can be a tough out for whoever lands them in the first round. A matchup with Orlando would be particularly sweet, seeing Turkoglu torch the magic while Carter comes up short would make for great viewing. But they come in sixth, just slightly behind The Charlotte Bobcats.
Larry Brown has done the kind of job in Charlotte he wasn’t able to in New York. He’s remade the roster, they play exceptional defense and are capable of beating anyone. The addition of Tyrus Thomas and the earlier trade for Stephen Jackson make this the only other club in the East that I can see upsetting the Cavs. It’s a long-shot, sure, but I can say with a straight face that if they finish sixth or seventh, and avoid an earlier matchup with Cleveland, they can get to the Conference Championship Series. But alas, they finish fifth, upset Orlando in the first round and have to settle for providing the first real test to Lebron and friends.
A bit later, I’ll look at the Western Conference.