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The Standings Report - The Chase for Postseason

This week we take a look at the race for the last spots for the playoffs in both conferences. Who has a run in them to finish off the season?

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

"The NBA moves in dog years," says Jalen Rose on his great podcast on Grantland. It's amazing how long one year seems in basketball when you consider how far teams come, how quickly teams rise and fall, and how the association is driven by "what have you done lately" rather than legacy. It feels like years ago that the Warriors were struggling to balance mediocrity with rebuilding, teetering between the lottery and slipping into the 8th spot and the playoffs. Golden State now sits at the top of the mountain looking down, considering home court advantage rather than debating being buyers or sellers at the trade deadline.

With that said, who are the teams this year that find themselves in the Warriors position of year's past: on the edge? This week we focus in on that race for the playoffs. The Western Conference is so deep; the 7th and 8th spots will represent teams with pedigree and talent, who pose a strong challenge for the top seeds (see: Warriors). In the Eastern Conference, there is a good chance a team will "fall" into the 8th seed and earn a one-way ticket to a lopsided series against Atlanta or the other tough top East seeds.

This time of the season represents when teams decide to make the dash to the finish line, or shy away and scale back for better lottery spots. A smart front office might sit that superstar and start to evaluate young talent for depth. Other teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder go all in at the trade deadline to prep themselves to move into playoff contention and even grab a higher seed than expected. This shift in power plays out countless stories, and today we are going to take a look at a few of them.

Western Conference

Who is in?

6th Seed

Los Angeles Clippers

37 - 20

7th Seed

San Antonio Spurs

34 - 22

8th Seed

Oklahoma City Thunder

32 - 25

Who is out?

9th Seed

New Orleans Pelicans

29-27

10th Seed

Phoenix Suns

29-28

  • The Clippers sit in the "safe" spot for now, representing the low end of a collection of teams between the 3rd slot (Houston with 38 wins) and the 6th seed Clippers. It's easy to expect a lot of movement going on with this group before season's end, with home court advantage holding a lot of value for the 4th seed. The Clippers have found themselves quite average recently, dealing with a Blake Griffin injury that has seen them go 4-4 over their last eight games. The hold a three game cushion over the group fighting for the last two spots, but that all rides on how they can do until Griffin is back on the court.
  • Are the Spurs really fighting for a playoff spot? Their age has shown through this season, never quite finding that solid ground they are known for. It still seems too soon to panic, as this veteran team always finds ways to win. Can they be overtaken by the Thunder, who holds the momentum at the moment? That will depend on the health of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, as both have shown road wear. They too have gone 4-4 over their last eight games, including their first three after the break. The loss to the Warriors was understandable, but losing to Utah in Utah? Tough to swallow.
  • All this leaves room for the Thunder to take advantage. Their deadline trades have shown great value so far, with Enes Canter playing a great interior game and Kyle Singler showing nice shooting range. The key for the Thunder has never been their stars, but it's clear with a better supporting staff that Russell Westbrook can finally be the MVP candidate he has the talent to be.
  • The Pelicans and the Suns have to look long and hard if they have it in them to make a push for the final spot. The Suns have taken an absolute nosedive, correlating with internal conflict around Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. They have currently lost five straight, and are still getting antiquated with new rotations and new players. The Pelicans are on the opposite end - still trying to play hard, but continually dealing with injuries. Can they get Anthony Davis back on the court with his supporting staff all in line at the same time? When this team is on, New Orleans can beat anyone. Sadly, we just haven't seen this for any prolonged period this season, and they might run out of time before they can.

Eastern Conference

Who is in?

6th Seed

Milwaukee Bucks

31 - 25

7th Seed

Miami Heat

24 - 31

8th Seed

Brooklyn Nets

23 - 31

Who is out?

9th Seed

Charlotte Hornets

22 - 32

10th Seed

Indiana Pacers

23 - 34

11th Seed

Detroit Pistons

23 - 34

  • The new-look surging Bucks might have finally found the roster and the balance to move closer toward their potential. They hold a huge lead over the last two playoff spots, and represent the "bottom" end of the East elite. They have retooled with Michael Carter-Williams and Miles Plumlee, though they dropped two tough contests to top East teams (Atlanta & Chicago) since the break. Jason Kidd has this team playing tough, and they will use the rest of the regular season to perfect their game for their pending playoff run. Fear the Buck? How can you not be excited for the Greek Freak in the playoffs?
  • After the Bucks, there is a huge drop to the bottom half of the East. The Heat and Nets both cling to final playoff spots, however both are far under .500 for the year. The Heat grabbed the biggest piece of the deadline in Goran Dragic, and is looking to get Dwayne Wade healthy to challenge a top Eastern team in the playoffs. Sadly, their chances were heavily blown when Chris Bosh was announced out for the season. The team already had roster depth problems, and now will have to work even harder to keep their fighting chance.
  • The Nets remain in the race at this point, but probably for the wrong reasons. They did all they could to dump aging talent with large contracts, only managing to cast off Kevin Garnett. They now sit with a similar roster to last year's playoff team, anchored by shell of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, who can still single-handedly shoot a team into a playoff win. The question remains - do they even want to be here? Do they still want to be a contender even though they are aware how badly they need to rebuild? Putting Brook Lopez, Williams and Joe Johnson on the court can still beat half the teams in the East, and with that they will end up in the playoffs by default.
  • Who can overtake the Heat or the Nets? Charlotte, Indiana & Detroit all sit a game behind the playoff spot. Detroit did the most at the deadline, flipping pieces for Reggie Jackson to take over the spot held by the injured Brandon Jennings. Who wants to face Detroit in the first round? I know Toronto doesn't want to go up against the Monroe/Drummond frontcourt. They serve the best chance of sneaking in purely based on roster and momentum. Both the Pacers and Hornets still could have a late season run in them, however I am giving the edge to Detroit purely based on recent performance (winners of six of their last ten).

Overall Thoughts

Each conference plays out slightly different, but the story is the same. Who wants it the most? Who throws in the towel first? Who will streak their way into March and April looking to take out a top seed? In the West, the question was "Will the Thunder make it" and now becomes "How high will they climb?"  In the East, it seems to be "Who actually wants to be here?"

The Warriors are going to have a tough first round match up, no matter how you look at it. There are simply no easy outs in the West, so better to accept that now. Either the surging Thunder or the old foes in San Antonio, prepare for the worse. Atlanta and Toronto/Chicago in the East will see empty arenas for playoff games in the first round, so better to accept that now.

Regardless, the fun is all in watching the race to the playoffs. With so much parody in the NBA this year, it's been great to see these great match ups every night. No matter who makes it in, the playoffs are poised to be some of the best in a long time, and I can't wait to see how they play out.

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