Consider this your comprehensive guide to the middling teams of the Western Conference as of a day before Valentine's Day. We'll include all the Western teams that wouldn't surprise you by getting the sixth seed, and wouldn't surprise by getting a low lottery pick. So San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, and Portland are out.
From the top:
DENVER: There are two ways to be surprised about Denver at this point. You can be either be surprised that they're actually in a dogfight for the division crown given Carmelo Anthony's superstar breakout and Marcus Camby's fantastic season. Or, you can be surprised that this team, woefully underachieving as it is, actually sits atop its horrible division. Weren't the Nuggets supposed to be an elite team, and with a shooting guard addition challenge the Spurs? Yikes. That said, the Nuggets are in a good position to a) make the playoffs by winning a god-awful division and b) suffer a rousing first-round loss to one of the conference's sure season-end risers. Fun.
LA CLIPPERS: Another two good weeks and the Clippers can jump into the SAS/Dallas/Phoenix class of "it'd be rather tragic if this team somehow didn't feel real good about its playoff chances." I was actually surprised when I saw the Clips were only 2.5 games behind Phoenix in the Pacific. The crazy thing is that LAC started faltering about the same time Golden State did, right around the New Year. The difference? Mike Dunleavy the Elder righted his ship. Junior's ship kept sinking and sinking. There's something to be said for having an unselfish superstar and a quality coach versus a hot-dog faux-superstar and an overmatched coach.
NOOCH: If Byron Scott doesn't win Coach of the Year (barring an incredibly slide into Portlanddom), they should stop giving out the award. How do a rookie point guard, two one-dimensional high-flyers, a young and raw post player and an ancient center with a game not dissimilar to that of Stanley from "The Office" get to the sixth seed? Throw in the displacement/Katrina issue, losing a rock like Jamaal Magloire, and the caging of The Birdman. In just two months, Oklahoma Freaking City will have Playoff Fever. God bless the NBA. (And OKC is definitely an NBA town. Make it happen, Stern.)
MEMPHIS: I might not be the first to say it, but Memphis does not look like a playoff team anymore. They are 3-7 in their last ten, and have been mediocre at best since around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. (Note: Is this the only holiday with a comma in its name? Very interesting.) The Grizzez, after a terrific run to start the season, are struggling without a full-time point guard. Kings fans know Bobby Jackson is really a shooting guard, and NBA fans know Chucky Atkins is three years past his prime, a prime that consisted of being OK in a tough spot. I know you need a point guard and all, but Chucky Atkins? I never thought an injury to the 2005 version of Damon Stoudemire would actually cost an NBA team a playoff berth. But that's exactly what I'm thinking now.
LA LAKERS: Easily the most consistently inconsistent team in the league. There are many reasons I thank God I'm not a Laker fan. Add this to it. Really, I wouldn't surprised if The Show made a run at the Clippers' five-seed on the back of a Mambalicious explosion. I also wouldn't be surprised if the Lakers lost nine straight at any point from here on out. One turned ankle. Just one, and it's over. Even if Kobe Bean stays healthy, the loss of Chris Mihm for the time being means too much Kwame Brown to win consistently. And unless Lamar Odom and Kobe somehow get cooperative ESP, the gap will widen.
UTAH: This is another confounding team, but not because it's so wildly inconsistent. It's just hard to figure out. Andrei Kirilenko is an All-World level player. Mehmet Okur is considered good only because he's tall. Matt Harpring, for whatever reason, is like a crappy Mike Miller. Carlos Boozer is suffering the Curse of the Blind Millionaire. Deron Williams is underachieving, especially in light of getting picked ahead of Chris Paul. I dunno. This team employs Greg Ostertag and Keith McLeod, and both of those guys play big minutes. You can't be comfortable marching with that squadron. But you can never really count out Jerry Sloan either, especially with that defense and AK-47 roaming around creating havok. Confounding.
GOLDEN STATE: The Warriors aren't as troublesome to figure out. As a matter of fact, I will rip up and eat my Chris Webber rookie card if the Warriors actually make the playoffs. I'm actually that confident that GSW is C-R-A-P. (Or, I could be hungry for Chris Webber flavored cardboard stock.) I'm not even sure Mike Montgomery is going to last the rest of the season, and the guy is owed a substantial amount of money the next couple years. What a disaster in Oakland. (Like you've never heard that before.)
SACRAMENTO: I think we all know where I stand on the Kings' playoff chances. But in case you don't, here you go: Not only will the Kings make the playoffs, they will pose a significant challenge to their counterpart. If they play the Nuggets, Suns or Jazz in Round One, I would be comfortable saying that the Kings would win their matchup. If the Clippers end up in the third slot and face the Kings, I would predict a Kings sweep.
MINNESOTA: Keeping in mind that anything is possible in the Northwest Division, I don't think the Wolves have a snowball's chance in Costa Rica of making the playoffs. Kevin Garnett has to be contemplating a homicidal rampage, right? He needs help and McHale trades for Mark Blount, Marcus Banks and Justin Reed? I mean, holy crap that's depressing.
HOUSTON: The Rockets seem like a dark horse in this whole shakedown. They are infinitely better with Yao and TMac on the floor, that's a no-brainer. But is the hole to deep to climb out of in a pretty competitive playoff race? Houston has all the makings of a team that comes up just short. I think they'll hit the ninth spot, and maybe flirt with the eighth seed. I don't think they'll get in, though. Too bad, because Houston/SAS or Houston/Dallas in the first round would be amazing.
SEATTLE: Sorry, this team doesn't belong here. Move along. (Actually, the Sonics could get really hot and sneak up on people. It's doubtful, though. There have been absolutely no signs of a Seattle revival. Still, they're 4.5 games out. Give me two weeks before I label them dead.)
There you go. Here are my predictions for the playoff seedings come April:
- San Antonio - They'll be in a battle til the end, though.
- Phoenix - Talented enough to hold off the Clippers.
- Denver - Carmelo as a darkhorse MVP candidate? Because without him, L-O-T-T-E-R-Y.
- Dallas - This seeding thing kind of ends up being a crime, no?
- LA Clippers - A crime indeed. The Clippers, should they hold this spot, deserve a chance against a Phoenix or Denver. Not the elite Mavericks.
- NOOCH - Feel-good story of the season. I think they can stick...
- Sacramento - ...though the Kings might give them a run. And yes, I'd probably take the Kings over the Suns in a seven-game series, if you're asking.
- Utah - I've waffled on this one for a while, between the Jazz and the Lakers. Defense wins chances for sure first-round bow-outs, though. And I'll take Utah's D over LA's D.