With the number of NCAA Tournament games dwindling last week, it was a good opportunity for fans of both the pro and college game to jump back into the NBA. With just 11 percent of the schedule to go, there are a number of furious battles for playoff seeds in both conferences. The incentive is high as a two- or three-seed in either circuit means avoiding the powerful Cavaliers and Lakers until the conference finals. Fifteen of the 16 playoff slots are almost locked up, but the other race is also heating up--Chicago moved within a half-game of Toronto for the last East slot after Sunday's results. Sit back and enjoy the rest of the season. The stakes are high and the intensity of the games has gone up a notch or two over the last 10 days.
(Statistics through March 28)
Rank. (Last week) Team (Power rating / Championship probability) [Win pace / Pythagorean win pace / Preseason projection ]
1. (1) Cleveland Cavaliers (60.5 / 35.5%) [ 64 / 60 / 54 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 2; DEF: 8; PACE: 25
In the quest for the league's top overall record, the Cavs should be solid, with a three-game lead over the Lakers in the loss column. Cleveland also has a season sweep of the defending champs in its proverbial hip pocket. However, there are a number of potential pitfalls left on the Cavs' docket, which includes road games at Chicago, Atlanta and Boston, plus home games against Atlanta and Orlando. By the way, did you know that Cleveland is 43-2 this season when it scores 100 or more points? Now you do.
2. (2) Los Angeles Lakers (59.6 / 22.4%) [ 60 / 56 / 53 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 11; DEF: 4; PACE: 11
Luke Walton has returned to practice and could be ready for game action late this week. As Kevin Pelton pointed out, the Lakers' offense has continued its spotty performance, and a ball-moving forward like Walton may just what L.A. needs to get the Triangle Offense running smoothly. According to BasketballValue.com, the Lakers have been six points worse with Walton on the floor in terms of one-year, unadjusted Offensive Rating. However, in the two-year, adjusted ratings, the Lakers' overall efficiency jumps by more than three points when Walton is on the court.
3. (3) Orlando Magic (58.0 / 14.7%) [ 57 / 59 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 6; DEF: 2; PACE: 19
The news is relatively good on Vince Carter, who sprained his right toe early in Sunday's game against Denver. X-rays did not reveal any fractures, so the malady is simply added to Carter's growing list of physical woes, along with his sprained right ankle. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Carter "won't be out for a long period of time." However, the Magic's next two games are at Dallas and San Antonio, so Carter's problems are ill-timed, especially with Mickael Pietrus also ailing. The good news is that with eight games to play, Orlando is more or less locked into the No. 2 seed in the East, so Stan Van Gundy's wing players have time to heal for the playoffs.
4. (4) Utah Jazz (56.3 / 4.9%) [ 53 / 56 / 53 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 7; DEF: 10; PACE: 13
Have you noticed that the Jazz has surpassed the Lakers in point differential? Through Sunday, Utah was at +5.9 points to the Lakers' +5.8 and now clocks in at third in the league behind Cleveland and Orlando. Other than Friday's game against the Lakers at the Staples Center, Utah's finishing schedule is favorable as the Jazz try to seize the No. 2 seed in the West. Friday's game is also a chance for the Jazz to serve notice of just how dangerous of a No. 2 seed they might be.
5. (6) San Antonio Spurs (53.7 / 2.0%) [ 50 / 54 / 57 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 9; DEF: 9; PACE: 21
In their last five games, the Spurs have beaten the Hawks, Celtics and Thunder on the road and the Cavaliers at home; the other game was a home loss to the Lakers. The schedule doesn't get any easier. Among San Antonio's last 10 games are road games at the Lakers, Phoenix, Denver and Dallas. The Spurs also have a home game against Orlando. So Gregg Popovich's team has its work cut out for it in the quest to avoid the No. 8 seed in the West, but the Spurs look like a team that is ready for the playoffs.
6. (5) Denver Nuggets (53.6 / 4.6%) [ 53 / 53 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 3; DEF: 17; PACE: 5
Denver has lost four of five and Monday's game at Dallas could leave the Nuggets looking up at Utah in the Northwest Division standings. The postseason rematch with the Lakers, which the Nuggets have aimed for all season, might actually come in the second round--if they can get that far. The Nuggets likely won't have George Karl on the sideline for the remainder of the season as he continues his battle with throat cancer.
7. (8) Phoenix Suns (52.4 / 1.8%) [ 52 / 52 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 1; DEF: 24; PACE: 4
The Suns have won seven straight during a notably soft portion of their schedule. This week, the Suns continue an Eastern swing that more difficult in terms of the travel and number of games than it is in terms of quality of opposition. After beating Minnesota on Sunday, the Suns now go to Chicago on Tuesday, New Jersey on Wednesday, Detroit on Friday and Milwaukee on Saturday. Five games, five cities, seven nights.
8. (7) Atlanta Hawks (52.0 / 3.2%) [ 52 / 53 / 30 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 4; DEF: 15; PACE: 26
Atlanta has split its last 12 games but has a chance to regain the momentum in its season this week with games against the Lakers and Cavaliers. At stake is the No. 3 seed in the East and its reward--avoiding the Cavaliers' side of the bracket. Currently, Atlanta and Boston are even for that spot but the Hawks swept the season series against the Celtics.
9. (9) Boston Celtics (51.6 / 2.6%) [ 52 / 53 / 56 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 13; DEF: 1; PACE: 22
The Celtics' listless loss against San Antonio on Sunday dropped Boston to 18-20 against teams .500 or better. Cleveland, Orlando and Atlanta are all at least seven games above break-even against the league's better teams. The top seven teams in the West also have winning records against over-.500 clubs.
10. (10) Oklahoma City Thunder (50.5 / 1.1%) [ 50 / 51 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 14; DEF: 5; PACE: 14
A tough home loss on Sunday to Portland has left the Thunder back in the scramble to avoid No. 8 in the West. OKC has lost four of seven after making a push to jump into the upper half of the West's playoff picture. This week sends Kevin Durant and company on the road for three games, including stops in Boston and Dallas.
11. (12) Portland Trail Blazers (50.0 / 1.4%) [ 49 / 50 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 5; DEF: 13; PACE: 30
Watch out for the Blazers, who have won 11 of 13 after knocking off the Thunder on Sunday in Oklahoma City. The surge comes despite media-fueled turmoil over Portland's front office. Amazingly, general manager Kevin Pritchard, who rescued the Blazers from luxury tax suicide and built this young, talented, deep roster, may be shown the door after the season. There is a battle of egos going on behind closed doors in Portland, but for the remainder of the season, Blazers fans can just concentrate on watching an excellent team playing terrific basketball.
12. (11) Dallas Mavericks (49.5 / 4.8%) [ 53 / 46 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 10; DEF: 12; PACE: 17
Dallas has lost four of seven, but retains a tenuous grasp of the No. 2 seed in the West. The Mavericks' prize acquisitions from Washington--Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood--have lost a bit of their shine. Butler was fined after swearing at fans during a game in Portland last week. Meanwhile, Haywood was annoyed after not starting a game, as the nod went to Erick Dampier. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said that his starter at center will vary depending on matchups.
13. (15) Miami Heat (46.0 / 0.3%) [ 44 / 46 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 18; DEF: 7; PACE: 28
Miami has won five straight and 10 of 13 as it closes in on on the No. 5 seed in the East, though personally I think a No. 6 seed would actually be preferable in this year's bracket. Either way, few teams are playing as well as Miami, which has been playing lock-down defense over the second half of its schedule.
14. (14) Charlotte Bobcats (44.9 / 0.2%) [ 43 / 45 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 24; DEF: 3; PACE: 27
Charlotte has also won 10 of 13 as it jockeys with Miami and Milwaukee for playoff position. Six of Charlotte's last 10 games are at home, where it is 27-8 on the season. The road games are Chicago, New Orleans, Houston and New Jersey. The solid play comes despite another dip in performance from backup point guard D.J. Augustin, who has made just two three-pointers over his last 10 games.
15. (13) Milwaukee Bucks (44.0 / 0.5%) [ 45 / 45 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 23; DEF: 6; PACE: 18
The Bucks' surge seems to have broken and is in the process of rolling back to sea. Last week, Milwaukee had a pair of home losses, to Philadelphia and streaking Miami, then needed overtime to beat Memphis at the Bradley Center. The finishing schedule is a bear, but luckily Milwaukee's recent 20-5 spurt provided them with plenty of seeding capital. At worst, the Bucks will finish seventh in the East.
16. (16) Houston Rockets (41.7 / 0.0%) [ 41 / 40 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 19; DEF: 16; PACE: 8
The Rockets have dropped five of six and now stand at break-even with 10 games to go. With Houston reduced to the spoiler's role, the focus now turns to Yao Ming's return next season. Yao is currently doing treadmill workouts and is slated to get back onto the court in July. However, Yao threw a possible--albeit unlikely--monkey wrench into the situation when he told the Houston Chronicle that he was "not sure" if he the uncertain labor situation might convince him to opt out of the last year of his current contract. Before you get too antsy, Rockets fans, all Yao really said was that he hadn't discussed the issue with his agent as yet. Sure, it'd have been nice if he simply said, "I'm not opting out, no way, no how, not in this or any other lifetime." Unfortunately, that's just not how these things work.
17. (17) Memphis Grizzlies (40.5 / 0.0%) [ 42 / 39 / 30 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 12; DEF: 21; PACE: 9
The Grizzlies aren't going to make the playoffs, but a winning record would be a great accomplishment for a team that lost 178 games the previous three seasons. Unfortunately, Memphis' finishing schedule is almost impossibly difficult. In its last nine games, the Grizzlies face Dallas (twice), Orlando, San Antonio, Denver and Oklahoma City. Two of the easier games aren't even that easy--against Houston and New Orleans. The one gimme in the bunch is a home game against Philadelphia on April 10. Memphis stands at 38-35 after losing in overtime at Milwaukee on Sunday. You'd hate to see a late-season free fall take the edge off a resurgent campaign. Memphis' finishing opponents have a composite .671 winning percentage--by far the highest in the league.
18. (18) Toronto Raptors (37.1 / 0.0%) [ 39 / 34 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 8; DEF: 30; PACE: 12
Turmoil in Toronto. After blowing a 16-point lead in Sunday's loss at Miami, the Raptors have now lost 13 of 17 and lead Chicago by just a half-game for the final playoff spot in the East. Toronto's Hedo Turkoglu sat out the entire game on Sunday due to coach's decision and Jay Triano admitted he was trying to send a message to the Raptors' prized free-agent acquisition from last summer. Toronto plays at Charlotte on Monday, while the Bulls play at home against Phoenix on Tuesday. By the time the Raptors return home to face the Clippers on Wednesday, they may be on the wrong side of the playoff window.
19. (20) Chicago Bulls (36.7 / 0.0%) [ 39 / 34 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 28; DEF: 11; PACE: 10
The Bulls are enigmatic as ever. Chicago has won four of five on the heels of a 10-game losing streak and despite their best efforts, the Bulls are neck-and-neck with Toronto for a playoff berth. The one loss in the current surge was a 29-point homecourt drubbing against Miami before a national television audience on Thursday. Rookie James Johnson partially tore the plantar fascia in his right foot in that game, but was able to play with the injury in Sunday's win at Detroit. His minutes will be limited, however, and there is still no timetable for Luol Deng's eventual return from a calf injury. That means more minutes at the three position for Flip Murray, who scored 23 points on 14 shots against the Pistons. By the way, the name placard above Murray's locker at the United Center actually says "Flip Murray." When he first joined the Bulls, I didn't know whether it was appropriate to address a fellow adult as "Flip." The answer is yes.
20. (19) New Orleans Hornets (36.7 / 0.0%) [ 37 / 33 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 16; DEF: 23; PACE: 16
Chris Paul has scored 23 points in three games since returning from injury. The Hornets have lost two of the games. Paul missed 25 games after having surgery for a torn meniscus in his knee. New Orleans coach Jeff Bower says that playing Paul when the Hornets have nothing to play for allows him to try out different player combinations. Nevertheless, it's hard to understand the upside of allowing Paul to come back. If he hurts his knee again, there is going to be some serious grumbling in the Crescent City.
21. (22) Philadelphia 76ers (30.0 / 0.0%) [ 29 / 31 / 40 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 20; DEF: 22; PACE: 23
The Sixers have missed Andre Miller much more than I thought they would, as he's more or less convinced me of his remaining worth just by leaving Philly. (Though he's played well for Portland over the last couple of months as well.) It's hard to know whether it's Miller's absence or faulty scheming by Eddie Jordan (either is a reasonable explanation), but the Sixers are the league's worst team defending the three-point line. Opponents have hit .394 from behind the arc this season. Last season, the Sixers' defense was right at the league average (.367) in defending against the three.
22. (24) Indiana Pacers (30.0 / 0.0%) [ 29 / 30 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 27; DEF: 14; PACE: 2
Apparently, Danny Granger hasn't given up on the notion of improving his scoring average for a fifth straight season. Granger has averaged 31.4 points over last five games. His season scoring mark (24.0) is still well shy of last season (25.8). Is it within the realm of reason that Granger gets to 25.9? To get there, he'd need to reach a season total of 1,606 points. That means 311 points over his last eight games--38.8 per outing. Don't think he's going to get there.
23. (21) New York Knicks (29.6 / 0.0%) [ 29 / 32 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 17; DEF: 25; PACE: 7
The Knicks will face a motivated Utah Jazz team that has two reasons for wanting to pummel New York on its home floor. Most obvious is Utah's battle for the No. 2 seed in the West, which remains very much alive. However, there is also the matter of the Knicks' finish in the league standings and the resultant number of lottery balls the Jazz will have in the hopper as the proud owners of New York's first-round pick. Currently the Knicks are within a group of four teams separated by 1 ½ games or less with Philadelphia, Indiana, L.A. Clippers.
24. (25) Los Angeles Clippers (27.9 / 0.0%) [ 30 / 24 / 27 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 25; DEF: 18; PACE: 15
Drew Gooden should have plenty of suitors to become his ninth team in nine seasons after a solid stretch of play since coming to the Clippers. Gooden has put up a .572 True Shooting Percentage and an 18.8 PER in 18 games since coming to L.A. He'll be an unrestricted free agent after the season.
25. (27) Golden State Warriors (27.5 / 0.0%) [ 23 / 31 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 15; DEF: 29; PACE: 1
Stephen Curry went 9-of-13 on three-pointers last week as he continues to shoot lights-out from behind the arc. Curry is now at .433 from long distance this season, seventh-best mark in the NBA. Among rookies with at least 100 three-pointers made, only D.J. Augustin and Wesley Person hit a higher percentage in their debut campaigns.
26. (23) Sacramento Kings (27.3 / 0.0%) [ 26 / 29 / 30 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 21; DEF: 19; PACE: 6
Carl Landry's per-game averages have increased in the additional minutes he's seen with the Kings, but his overall game has slipped a tad since he came over from Houston. Landry's numbers have fallen in rebounding percentage, blocks, assists, usage, foul-drawing and True Shooting Percentage. The drop isn't precipitous but the next time someone tells you that Landry is playing better since getting traded, we'll be counting on you to set the record straight.
27. (26) Washington Wizards (25.2 / 0.0%) [ 23 / 26 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 26; DEF: 20; PACE: 20
Wizards honcho Ernie Grunfeld went on record again, insisting that Gilbert Arenas will be back next season and that people lose sight of the fact that Arenas is "one of the better players in out league." Ah, out of the mouths of babes!
28. (28) Detroit Pistons (24.9 / 0.0%) [ 25 / 25 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 22; DEF: 26; PACE: 29
Pistons coach John Kuester says that Detroit needs a quality offensive big man to open up the perimeter, but he failed to also say that at least half the teams in the NBA are in the same boat and some of those squads (Boston, Dallas) are really good. The lack of a top-notch post option doesn't do much to explain Detroit's slip to 26th in Defensive Rating, nor its No. 29 ranking in DALE, my measure of a team's fundamental play. I place most of the blame for this season's debacle at the feet of team president Joe Dumars, but it's hard to find evidence that Kuester has done a capable job in his first season as an NBA coach.
29. (29) Minnesota Timberwolves (16.9 / 0.0%) [ 15 / 17 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 29; DEF: 28; PACE: 3
Minnesota has lost 16 games in a row and general manager David Kahn thinks that part of the franchise's next step will be to offer a multi-year contract (according to an unnamed source at Fanhouse.com) to Darko Milicic based on an 11.5 PER in 17 games since coming to the Wolves. Is he getting roster-building tips from Isiah Thomas?
30. (30) New Jersey Nets (13.0 / 0.0%) [ 10 / 15 / 40 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 30; DEF: 27; PACE: 24
The Nets have only one home game left against a sub-.500 team that has nothing left to play for. That's April 3 game against New Orleans, which is anything but an automatic 'W'. In terms of projected point spreads, the Nets' best bet for that magical 10th win is April 9 against Chicago, which is currently in a mad scramble for a playoff spot.
RANKINGS: NET = net efficiency ratio; OFF - offensive efficiency; DEF - defensive efficiency; PACE: average possessions per game
Adjusted winning percentage (AWP) = ((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) / (((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) + ((home losses x .1.4)+(road losses x 0.6)))
Championship probability (CHAM) = percent of championships won out of 10,000 simulations of the "as of today" playoff bracket, based on each team's POW
Opponents winning percentage (OWP) = aggregate percentage of games won for each team's opponents, based on the number of times the team has faced that opponent.
Playoff Potential (POT) = suggests the highest likely postseason round a team might advance to, based on comparing its POW to other teams in our database
Power rating (POW) = (((PYTH + AWP)/2)*(OWP/.500)) x 82
Pythagorean winning percentage (PYTH) = uses the basketball-reference formula of Games x (Points scored^14) / ((Points scored^14) + (Points allowed^14))
WP82 = wins produced per 82 games, adjusted for playing time
WP3K = wins produced per 3,000 minutes
SKILL RATINGS: player performance is quantitatively tracked in a variety of categories that represent a cross-section of basketball skills; in each category, the player's performance is measured against others at his position, then slotted in a league-wide percentile ranking. The percentile ranking is converted to an integral rating between +5 and -5, with 0 being average. Skill ratings are tracked for overall production (TOT), offensive production (OFF), on-ball defensive ability (DEF), overall rebounding (REB), passing (PAS), ballhandling (HND), shooting (SHT), athleticism (ATH), foul-drawing (FOU), blocks-plus-steals (BPS).
Statistical Plus Minus (SPM): measures a players net effect in points per 100 team possessions.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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