The phrase, “Anything can happen” means more this season in the Western Conference than perhaps any other.
With the upper half struggling, the first round is ripe for upsets.
Here’s how the West shapes up if the season ended today:
1. San Antonio Spurs vs. 8. Memphis Grizzlies
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 7. New Orleans Hornets
3. Dallas Mavericks vs. Portland Trail Blazers
4. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 5. Denver Nuggets
While the Lakers will and should be clear favorites against the Hornets, every other series is a toss-up. With the Spurs and Mavs limping towards the finish-line, upsets aren’t out of the question.
On to the rankings:
1. Los Angeles Lakers (55-21) You have to beat the King to take his crown. The Lakers are back-to-back champions and playing better than any team in the league. The favorites going forward.
2. Chicago Bulls (56-20) Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau are in the top two for awards at their respective positions. Rose has the MVP all but secured while Thibodeau is alikely second to Doug Collins. The Bulls just need to get healthy for the playoffs.
3. Miami Heat (54-23) The Heat will run into trouble if they play a team with a dominant big man (men). Chicago and Orlando are bad match-ups for Miami, but who is willing to bet against LeBron and Wade in a seven-game series.
4. San Antonio Spurs (58-19) The Spurs snapped a six-game losing streak with a blowout win over the undermanned Phoenix Suns. Injuries have played a large role in the losing streak, though, so health is the No. 1 priority heading into the playoffs. The Spurs still boast the best record, but aren’t the best team as of today. They’re still a threat in the Western Conference finals, however.
5. Portland Trail Blazers (44-32) The Blazers have won 3-of-4 over the Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Dallas Mavericks. Perhaps more impressive than the wins is the talent the Blazers boast. Adding Gerald Wallace makes Portland a legitmate contender.
6. Boston Celtics (53-23) Jeff Green could be a heck of a player for the Celtics down the road, but then Shaq hobbled off the court Sunday. That trade could sink the 2010-11 season in Boston.
7. Denver Nuggets (47-29) The Nuggets won in Los Angeles without Arron Afflalo and Chris Andersen. There is no team deeper than Denver heading into the playoffs, but their reward: a first round match-up against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Nuggets are 15-4 without Carmelo Anthony.
8. Dallas Mavericks (53-24) Three straight losses for Dallas with one to Golden State sandwiched in the middle. The Mavs also fell behind by 20-plus points in losses to the Lakers and Trail Blazers. With key players like Jason Kidd (38), Dirk Nowitzki (32), and Jason Terry (33), one has to wonder if the Mavs are young enough for a long playoff run…
9. Orlando Magic (48-29) Injuries abound in Orlando, but that excuse won’t fly in the playoffs. Dwight Howard continues his torrid pace at both ends of the floor, but his supporting cast is less than stellar.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (50-26) The only downside for the Thunder’s banner season is a first round date with the Nuggets. A loss Saturday to the Los Angeles Clippers, which included five technicals, is cause for concern. A Tuesday match-up with Denver will provide a post-season appetizer.
11. Memphis Grizzlies (44-33) Reaching the playoffs with Rudy Gay is quite an accomplishment for Lionel Hollins and the Grizzlies. They haven’t clinched yet, but by the same token, they’re only one game out of sixth.
12. Philadelphia 76ers (40-37) Doug Collins deserves the Coach of the Year award for what he’s done with such a young group. If the playoffs ended today, the Sixers would meet the Celtics in the first round. With the rough shape Boston is in, don’t count out Philly just yet.
13. New Orleans Hornets (44-33) The Hornets have the same record as the Grizzlies and are only three ahead of the Houston Rockets in the West. New Orleans will likely make the playoffs, but without David West, it isn’t nearly the threat it was.
14. Atlanta Hawks (44-33) The Hawks have clinched a playoff position, but can they make any noise considering a) their inability to close games and b) their penchant for lopsided blowouts against elite teams.
15. Houston Rockets (41-36) The Rockets are three games out with five to play, so the playoffs are a longshot at best. It’s too bad, because no one wanted to see them in the first round.
16. New York Knicks (38-38) The Knicks have won three straight games and clinched their first playoff berth in seven seasons. Two of the wins came against the New Jersey Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers, so take those with a grain of salt. That said, a sense of relief permeates the Garden. Carmelo’s thoughts on the Knicks’ playoff drought: “I have never experienced that… I can only imagine how that felt.”
17. Phoenix Suns (37-39) Steve Nash said before the season that the Suns would be on the outside looking in as things stood then, and wouldn’t ya know it, he was right. The quote of the week comes from Marcin Gortat after a blowout loss to the Spurs Sunday: “I’ll just tell you one thing, I’m embarrassed.”
18. Indiana Pacers (35-43) The Pacers went 3-1 last week with a win over the Boston Celtics. They’ll need that type of play down the stretch to remain in the playoffs since the final three are against the Hawks, Knicks, and Magic.
19. Charlotte Bobcats (32-44) The Bobcats lost to the Washington Wizards at home, likely the nail in their playoff coffin. Had to see it coming after trading Gerald Wallace, though.
20. Milwaukee Bucks (31-45) Even if the Bucks had a chance to make the playoffs (three games out with six to play), the schedulemakers did them no favors. The Magic, Heat, and Thunder comprise three of their final six.
21. Golden State Warriors (33-44) A 99-92 win over the Mavs is a feather in Keith smart’s cap. Unlike the Eastern Conference teams above the Warriors, Golden State has no mathematical shot at making a playoff run, however. On the bright side, the Warriors will get a nice look at Ekpe Udoh heading into next season.
22. Los Angeles Clippers (30-47) Next year, the Clippers should be in the Western Conference playoff race…unless Donald Sterling happens. Or Blake Griffin gets hurt.
23. Sacramento Kings (22-54) Despite aa 22-win record, the Kings have probably done enough to save Paul Westphal’s job. The Kings have won 5-of-7 games and played markedly better in Tyreke Evans’ return. They’ve give Westphal a case to make to ownership. Credit to the players for not throwing in the towel…
24. Utah Jazz (36-41) Speaking of throwing in the towel, shame on the Jazz. Utah has lost eight straight games and Tyrone Corbin had this to say: “As a group of guys altogether we’re not playing as hard, consistently, as I think we can. So we’ve got to work on that, and we’ve just got to get better.” So the Jazz has to work on giving better effort. In the pros, effort should never be in question.
25. Detroit Pistons (26-50) Credit to John Kuester for not going down without a fight. With his job past saving, Kuester benched Rodney Stuckey against the Celtics. According to sources, it’s for refusing to enter the game in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. Stuckey’s thoughts: At the end of the year, I have to sit down with my agent, do what we have to do.” It’s hard to believe this was a championship team in the past decade.
26. New Jersey Nets (23-53) The Nets are losers of six straight and Kris Humphries might miss the rest of the season. This explains YES Network’s decision not to broadcast the next two games against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Pistons. Not that those games would’ve drawn very high Nielsen ratings…
27. Toronto Raptors (21-55) The Raptors have a solid nucleus built around DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani. Now the tough part: building around them.
28. Washington Wizards (20-56) The Wizards have won 3-of-4…Break ‘em up!
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (17-60) The T’Wolves have lost 10 straight games, so their Tuesday night showdown in Newark is their Super Bowl.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers (15-61) The Cavs notched a 102-90 win against LeBron James and the Miami Heat Tuesday night. Can someone explain how that happened? Anyone…