Here we are in mid-March, the third-quarter mark of the season. Who doesn't love this time of year? The drama of who gets into the tournament and who doesn't, the frenzied atmosphere of conference tournaments, at-large bids and of course, the Big Dance ...
Wait, that's another kind of basketball. Yes, March is the one time all year when the college game is better than the pro game. That is, if you can stand night after night of 30-percent shooting and interminably bad basketball. But in the college game, at least you get drama, tension and meaningful games in March. In the NBA, you get a bunch of people huddled at the bus stop, shivering through the final, stubborn throes of winter and waiting to take the express route to the playoffs.
For about half the teams in the NBA, the playoffs are merely a dream. Essentially, all but one spot in the 16-team postseason field have been locked up. The only uncertainty is whether the Lakers can hang onto the eighth spot in the West amid their latest challenge, Kobe Bryant's severely sprained left ankle that has put him out "indefinitely," according to the team.
For those teams that know they're on the outside looking in and preparing for a trip to the draft lottery, there are varying levels of optimism and hope for better days ahead. So with the 2012-13 regular season all but wrapped up, it's time to look at the five lottery teams with the best chance to make the playoffs next season.
Before we get to the top five, a few words on logistics. The serious question for any team poised to make a move into the top eight spots in each conference is, which teams are they knocking out? It's difficult to fathom more than three potential openings in the East, and frankly, it's a challenge to find a single one in the West.
For the purposes of this exercise, we'll consider only the factors that lottery teams can control, or at least reasonably expect to change: draft picks, cap room and injuries that dampened their 2011-12 season but figure to be resolved. Here are my five teams best positioned for improvement. Whether there will be room for them in the 2013-14 playoff field is another story:
1. Mavericks: It's difficult to imagine Mark Cuban taking another year off and wasting one of the few elite seasons Dirk Nowitzki has left -- and the final year on his contract, by the way. Cuban's deft anticipation of the new collective bargaining agreement's challenges has left him with another clean slate payroll-wise to reshuffle the deck. The Mavs are positioned to have at least $15.8 million in cap room, and could easily maneuver into position to make a serious play for a max free-agent, such as, you know, Dwight Howard. It's difficult to imagine Howard leaving LA, but Cuban always has a Plan B (Josh Smith?). The free-agent pool is scarce after Howard and Chris Paul, who also isn't going anywhere. But with payroll flexibility and tax room, Cuban will have all the tools needed to improve the roster at his disposal.
2. Wizards: The what? Yes, the Wizards. Like the government that's based there, Washington is just about tapped out on the spending front, but the Wizards essentially did their free-agent shopping when they added Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza last year. The plan was to get John Wall some veteran help, and that plan went out the window when Wall missed the first 2 1/2 months of the season. A full season of the Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt should help. If it doesn't, it might be time for a government shutdown of the District's professional basketball team. The nation can't afford any more losing.
3. Timberwolves: If Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love had been healthy all season, we might not even be talking about the Lakers making the playoffs. The health of the Wolves' top two players might be enough to push them into the postseason in and of itself. The one issue looming over Minnesota is the future of Love, who clearly is not enthused about his standing within the organization. But if he doesn't force a trade and manages to stay healthy, he and Rubio could make all the difference.
4. Trail Blazers: Portland is a much better team than most people expected this season, and much of it has to do with the emergence of Damian Lillard. But the Blazers also still have a bona fide All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge and cap room (as much as $12 million) to fill holes during free agency if they so choose.
5. Pistons: I like the young core of Brandon Knight, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Also, Joe Dumars figures to have another top-10 pick and as much as $23 million in cap room. The last time the Pistons had significant cap room, of course, they wasted it on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Expect Detroit to be much more judicious this time, because the new luxury tax and restrictions on tax teams are far less forgiving.
Why not these guys? The following teams should be in the playoff hunt next season, but there are too many questions to pencil them in:
Sixers: Philly has a couple of playoff-caliber pieces in Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young. But if Andrew Bynum leaves -- either by his own choice or the Sixers' -- the team will be hard-pressed to use the resulting cap room to replace him with pieces that are as good as what they gave up in the trade.
Jazz: There's a lot to like about the Jazz, who haven't gotten enough credit for their foresight in trading Deron Williams before he had free-agent leverage. But after failing to unload Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap or both at the trade deadline, there are too many holes in Utah's immediate future to pencil them in for a postseason spot. They do figure to have two picks in the top 20, but those players in a weak draft won't help them next season.
Raptors: Toronto keeps reshuffling the deck, but the addition of Rudy Gay hasn't fooled anyone into thinking the Raptors finally will be playoff-bound after five-straight losing seasons. What they can get for Andrea Bargnani in a possible draft-oriented trade or in July could be key.
Cavaliers: The Cavs have shown remarkable patience in rebuilding from the ground up after LeBron James' departure for Miami in 2010. Their perseverance paid off when they found a gift from the basketball gods named Kyrie Irving. A healthy Anderson Varejao will improve things, but at some point, the Cavs need to cash in some of the assets and picks they've accumulated and put another star on the floor with Irving. Their best bet in the immediate future would appear to be the trade route, considering the weak free-agent class. The question on everyone's mind is, do the Cavs have the patience to wait until LeBron is a free agent again in 2014? And secondly, does Cleveland have the stomach to get turned down by LeBron again?
Hornets: A healthy Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis should help, as will another top-10 pick. But New Orleans still has too many holes to fill to expect a trip to the postseason. They've recovered from the loss of Paul better than could have been expected, but there's still a long way to go.
Awards watch: Here's where the major individual awards stand as we enter the fourth quarter of the season.
MVP: LeBron James, Miami Heat. I had Kevin Durant holding a slight lead over James at the midway point, but Miami's 20-game winning streak and LeBron's utterly dominant stretch of play has him solidly in possession of a fourth MVP trophy that is now his to lose.
Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers. It's a closer race than it was, say, a month ago, with Bradley Beal coming on and the Wizards playing better as a result. But Lillard is still in control here.
Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers, Celtics. With all due respect to Tom Thibodeau and Frank Vogel, Rivers has the Celtics solidly in the playoff picture -- how, exactly? Boston has somehow played better without Rajon Rondo, and the Celtics have been decimated by an assortment of other injuries that have forced Rivers into a nightly juggling act with the rotation. Coach of the Year is a completely subjective award that usually goes to a team that achieves great things unexpectedly. But wherever the Celtics wind up and however far they advance in the playoffs, it's difficult to argue that any coach has his team playing better under more difficult circumstances.
Sixth Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford, Clippers. A week on the shelf with an ankle injury put a damper in Crawford's candidacy, but he still holds a lead over other deserving candidates: Golden State's Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, New York's J.R. Smith and OKC's Kevin Martin. Dark horse to watch: Miami's Ray Allen, who has scored in double figures in 13 of the past 15 games.
Defensive Player of the Year: Larry Sanders, Bucks. Dwight Howard simply has not been Dwight Howard this season, and Tyson Chandler's chances of repeating have been dragged down by the Knicks' team-wide defensive struggles. Sanders is averaging nearly five blocks per 40 minutes, according to HoopData.com, and his defensive rebounding rate is significantly better than Roy Hibbert's and Serge Ibaka's. If you don't like stats or big men, it's hard to do better in the wing-defender department than Andre Iguodala.
Most Improved: Jrue Holiday, Sixers. I'm with the Eye on Basketball guys on this one. Holiday's growth and maturity, not to mention his jump in offensive productivity, have earned him some well-deserved recognition. Toronto's Amir Johnson is right there, too.