East looks set, West a mess - NBC Sports

East looks set, West a mess
Can Lin lead Knicks to home court in first round? Will Magic finally trade Howard?
AP
The Thunder are a sure bet to make the playoffs, but the Lakers aren't quite so sure, NBCSports.com contributor Ira Winderman writes.
February 27, 2012, 12:02 pm

In a season when the midpoint of the schedule coincides with the All-Star break, it's as good a point as any to take stock.

In the East, separating the contenders from the pretenders has almost been completed by the centrifuge that has been the first half of this lockout-compacted schedule.

The order probably will change, but it seems like we have our playoff and lottery contestants established. Nothing more to see here, folks.

In some order, the Heat, Bulls, Magic, Hawks, 76ers, Knicks, Celtics and Pacers figure to play into May.

By contrast, the priority will become lottery luck and draft scouting for the Cavaliers, Bucks, Pistons, Nets, Raptors, Wizards and Bobcats.

But in the West, the final 33 or so games will mean plenty, especially at the bottom of the playoff pack.

Your almost-sure-thing: the Lakers.

Your fight-to-the-finish free-for-all: the Rockets, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Timberwolves (that sounds odd, doesn't it?) and Jazz.

The already-collected-their-lovely-parting-gifts crowd: the Suns, Warriors, Kings and Hornets.

If ever there was a year to consider a "swing" playoff provision, this is it. Similar to the case in recent years, a good West team will miss the postseason in favor of a not-so-good East also-ran.

The solution: If No. 9 in the West (or beyond) has a winning record and any playoff seed in the East is more than two games below .500, then seed the West teams into the bottom of the East bracket as replacement playoff teams.

The solution: Any West vs. East series before the NBA finals would be scheduled on a 3-2-2 basis. That reduces the equation of, say, Heat-Portland to a single trip as opposed to the Heat having to go twice, say, to Milwaukee (similar total distance, fewer travel days, and a neat little spin on the playoff equation).

Such an approach, regardless of conference race, would have teams in the league's lesser conference (currently the East) fighting to stay within two games of .500 and have teams in the stronger conference (currently the West) desperately competing to at least get to .500.

The reality would be a much stronger postseason field, as well as reduce the sham of awful teams being able to claim playoff credentials.

For now, though, there remains a second half to be played out, with seedings still at issue in both conferences.

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Among the more compelling standings storylines for the post-break, final nine weeks of the season:

Trade deficit: For all the Dwight Howard consternation, with the exception of a single blip in January, the Magic have been very, very good, good enough to rate a No. 3 seed at their current pace.

But if No. 3 gets, say, the Celtics or Knicks, would one-and-done in the postseason be enough of a tradeoff for the Shaq-like risk of losing Howard in free-agency for nothing in return?

With Howard, the Magic are a seeming lock for homecourt in the first round. Without Howard, Orlando almost assuredly will play from the bottom of the seedings.

Trade deficit, too: Then there are the Lakers, who stood as an initial prime trade partner for Howard until Kobe become all Pau-centric.

If the deal is Andrew Bynum and pieces for Howard, then the Lakers move into Thunder territory at the top of the West. But if this next generation of bust-'em-Busses have their way, shedding even more salary, homecourt in the first round could become an issue. Two-and-done last season, the Lakers could yet be one-and-done this time around.

How high the Knicks: Although the East field seemingly is set, the standings are anything but. New York would appear destined to rise from No. 7 to something closer to homecourt in the first round, based on the emergence of Jeremy Lin and the return of Carmelo Anthony. The Hawks appear primed for a fade and the Pacers' overachieving is about to hit midnight.

Questions for the aged: San Antonio was able to withstand Life Without Manu I and now is entering Chapter II. Boston has proven less capable with its injury absences.

In each case, the talent is there.

The sense here is Boston does anything possible to avoid a bottom-two seed and an opening matchup against either the Bulls or Heat.

The Spurs, by contrast, would appear more concerned, based on Gregg Popovich's approach to this point, of being healthy for the postseason, with Tuesday's approach in Portland a prime example.

So figure on getting a rise out of the Celtics and settling into the midsection by the Spurs.

All three should make the playoffs. The Nuggets, in fact, could move up amid the scramble with the Rockets and Grizzlies, if only as a matter of coaching. But in the East, the 76ers and Pacers could yet settle into the lower seeds they held last season.

The wild card in the East could be if the Hawks are able to endure amid Al Horford's continued absence.

At the top: Ultimately, the races for the top overall seeds will come down to the Bulls and Heat in the East, Thunder and Spurs in the West.

In each case, there appears a team hell bent on No. 1 (Bulls, Thunder) and a team (Heat, Spurs) simply not willing to make such an all-out push, appreciating that ultimate success doesn't have to come from the top of the standings.

Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks had their teams at the top when the cutoff came for the All-Star coaching berths. They'll be there April 26, as well.

Then the real scramble will begin.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.

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