As the season shifts into the new year, NBA teams begin to take a harder look at where they stand in relation to the playoffs -- and what they can do to improve. A third of the way through the season, here’s one view of how the playoff picture is shaping up.
As the season shifts into the new year, NBA teams begin to take a harder look at where they stand in relation to the playoffs -- and what they can do to improve. A third of the way through the season, here’s one view of how the playoff picture is shaping up. Here’s a Lottery Ticket If the 76ers or Bobcats can remain within striking distance of the final playoff spot in the East, they’ve done well. Injuries have made things even tougher on the Kings and Clippers out West. The Sonics have the Rookie of the Year (Kevin Durant) and other good, young players but need more time. The Grizzlies and Timberwolves are headed nowhere this season and can only hope that changes anytime soon. And then there’s the Knicks. Here’s a stat line from starting center Eddy Curry in Wednesday’s loss to Orlando: Two points, no rebounds, one turnover, four minutes. Enough said. Whatever Happened To … The free fall by the Bulls and Heat has them quickly headed toward the lottery. The “Baby” Bulls have not matured, costing Scott Skiles his job. The Heat, two years removed from winning it all, have not aged well and are drifting into unwatchable mode. Eastern Also-Rans On any given night, the Raptors, Pacers, Wizards, Nets and Bucks can beat someone and open up a few eyes. Some of the game’s brightest stars can be found on these teams -- New Jersey’s Jason Kidd, Toronto’s Chris Bosh and Milwaukee’s Michael Redd -- but each team is a losing streak away from missing the playoffs. Hard to Figure A couple weeks into the season, Utah and Houston looked like contenders out West. Then the makeup wore off, and blemishes were revealed. Each have great 1-2 punches -- Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams in Utah, and Yao and Tracy McGrady in Houston -- but that’s not enough. The Jazz still are the league’s fourth-youngest team, and that youth has shown of late. The Rockets need to find chemistry and toughness. Need More Seasoning Portland has been the team of the month in December, while Atlanta is on the fringe of being relevant for the first time since ‘Nique was windmill dunking on the league. But these two young teams are bound to run into some tough spots that they are a few years away from surviving. A healthy Greg Oden next year and the continued growth of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge could make the Blazers a team to beat as soon as 2010. Atlanta’s still hard to read with all of its athleticism and youth. The Hawks must show a commitment on the defensive end to match up down the road with the likes of the Pistons and Celtics. Scary Early, But Leaving Late Golden State, Denver and New Orleans could do first-round damage out West. Do these guard-oriented teams have staying power? Probably not. But enjoy the likes of Baron Davis, Monta Ellis, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul while you can. Can One Man Do It All? Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are a show in themselves, but their teams must come up big around them to see the end of May. The Lakers’ supporting cast has been more consistent, while the Cavs’ has the experience of last year’s playoff run. The Popular Kids The Celtics own the league’s best record, while the Magic have been the NBA’s top road team. Both, though, have plenty to prove in the months to come. Will the Celtics continue to blow the doors off opponents most nights? Probably not. Their schedule is about to get much tougher, and that’s when Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce must show their mettle. The Magic have struggled the last few weeks as teams have adjusted to them. They must be more than Dwight Howard dunks and 3-point shots. Usual Suspects Phoenix and Dallas are a joy to watch when they get rolling on offense. But there are always questions about their defense and toughness, and some of their recent losses show they have their work cut out for them. Overlooked No More Detroit has lurked in the background of the Eastern Conference as Boston and Orlando grabbed headlines. But the Pistons keep winning. They have one of the best backcourts (Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton), part of an outstanding starting five. They know how to win playoff games, and they’ve added younger, more athletic legs to the bench. The Winner Is … They don’t have the best record. They don’t sell the most jerseys. They’re not even sexy enough to get a game on Christmas Day. But does anyone want to play the Spurs in the playoffs? They have arguably the best coach (Gregg Popovich), best post player (Tim Duncan), best sixth man (Manu Ginobili), not to mention Tony Parker and an assortment of good role players. They haven’t been dominant of late and have dealt with injuries. But come playoff time, unless injuries pop up again, the Spurs remain the team to beat. Reach Canton Repository sports writer Chris Beaven at (330) 580-8345 or email@example.com.