Good Chance to Move Up
Currently: 24-20, 7th in the West
Yeah, they’re losing Kyle Lowry for a bit (out 2-4 weeks with a bacterial infection), but they got Derek Fisher at the deadline, a proven veteran who can handle the team in the short term and serve as an excellent backup to Lowry once he’s healthy again...except Houston is going to buy Fisher out, leaving Goran Dragic as the team's only PG for a while (?). They also landed Marcus Camby from the Blazers, who gives them nice frontcourt depth alongside Luis Scola and Samuel Dalembert. The best part of these trades? The Rockets gave up practically nothing, as they surrendered just one draft choice (a second-rounder this year) and a slew of underachievers (Jordan Hill, Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn) for a proven defensive-minded veteran and the Lakers’ first-rounder this year. There aren’t many dominant teams in the West, and GM Daryl Morey is trying to take advantage by shaking things up and making a run at it this year. Camby turns 38 next week, so this is clearly a move predicated towards the here and now. The Rockets close with the West’s 3rd-easiest remaining schedule (ranked by opponent winning percentage), and their last four are against New Orleans, Golden State, Miami (who may be locked into a seed and thus unmotivated by that point), and New Orleans. I don’t see a way that Houston makes it by San Antonio or OKC in the playoffs, but they’ve definitely improved their short-term chances without sacrificing their long-term plans (though I’m still unclear what Houston’s long-term plans are…).
Los Angeles Clippers
Currently: 24-18, 5th in West
The Clippers upgraded without sacrificing anything, adding Nick Young (17 ppg) for Brian Cook and a 2015 second-rounder. Though he’s not super-efficient (41% FG), Young gives the Clippers some needed size at the guard position and will boost LA’s second unit. The hope is that playing on a winning team will mean that Young won’t feel he has to do as much as he did in Washington (where he could be selfish at times), which would be beneficial for both player and team. LA also has a slightly easier end to the season (remaining opponents’ winning percentage of 50%, 5th-easiest in the West), including an incredibly easy home slate (remaining home games: Houston, Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, Phoenix, Portland, Utah, LA Lakers, Sacramento, Golden State, Oklahoma City, New Orleans). Their biggest stumbling block will be a back-to-back-to-back against Indiana, OKC, and New Orleans, all on the road, from March 20-22.
Good Chance to Move Down
Currently: 25-20, 6th in the West
The defending champs are really struggling right now. They’ve lost 8 of their last 12, and that stretch hasn’t featured a lot of killer competition (losses to New Jersey, New Orleans, and an 0-3 road trip against Phoenix, Sacramento, and Golden State; their four wins came against Utah, New York, Washington and Charlotte, who have a combined record of 56-114). Dallas’ remaining schedule is the hardest in the league (opponents’ winning percentage of 55%) and they have to play all four of their Eastern Conference opponents on the road, including a tough back-to-back against Orlando and Miami on March 29 and 30. They’re only 2.5 games ahead of the Minnesota (currently 9th in the West), so they could slip out of the playoffs. A lot of the teams below them don’t have it much easier though.
New York Knicks
Currently: 19-24, 9th in the East
Is anyone really surprised that New York has lost six of seven now that a) teams have started to figure out Jeremy Lin and b) the Knicks’s schedule got a lot harder (their most recent stretch: @ Boston, @Dallas, @ San Antonio, @Milwaukee, Philadelphia, @ Chicago, Portland). Mike D’Antoni may have lost control of the team, but even Red Auerbach would have had a tough job getting this group through that stretch. The hope is that the team will become more unified (and defensive-minded) under interim boss Mike Woodson, but in reality, the schedule doesn’t get any easier (opponents’ winning percentage to this point: 47%; opponents’ winning percentage for the rest of the season: 50%). The good news for the Knicks is that they won’t have a ton of traveling to do, as they only face one Western Conference opponent (the Clippers at home on April 25) the rest of the way. Unfortunately, NY only has a 12-14 record against the Eastern Conference to this point, so that may not be a huge advantage.
Currently: 22-22, 9th in West
Obviously, the loss of Ricky Rubio is huge. He doesn’t shoot well, but Rubio does pretty much everything else at a high level, including play defense (his 2.2 steals per game rank third in the league), and Minnesota is a vastly different team with Luke Ridnour at the point. We’ll know more about them after their current seven-game road trip, which concludes with their two toughest remaining games (at San Antonio on March 21 and at OKC on March 23). From there, almost all of the Timberwolves’ games are either home games or winnable road games (Memphis, Charlotte, Portland, Sacramento, New Orleans, Denver, Indiana, Detroit). If Minnesota is in contention after the OKC game on March 23, they still have a chance, but without Rubio they may have to wait until 2013 for a shot at the playoffs.
Portland Trail Blazers
Currently: 20-23, 12th in the West
Portland’s only 3.5 games out of a playoff spot in a crowded Western Conference, but they took the opposite approach to the Rockets at the trade deadline. Interim GM Chad Buchanan saw a Blazers team that wasn’t performing and too many teams to overcome for them to have a legitimate chance in the playoffs, so he decided to blow things up. Gone are Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace (both trade deadline acquisitions themselves over the past two seasons), as well as head coach Nate McMillan, who was canned after an embarrassing 42-point loss to the Knicks on Wednesday. Portland’s schedule isn’t getting any easier either, as their remaining opponents have a 52% winning percentage (compared to 49% for their foes to this point).