The NBA season is almost three-quarters the way through. Now is the time when we start seeing which teams are real contenders for an NBA title and which teams can pull through to earn those final playoff spots.
Here’s a look around the NBA and where teams stand in the playoff picture:
In the Eastern Conference, it would be no surprise if Miami returned to the NBA finals. The Heat has won 15 straight games, hitting its stride at the right time, going into playoffs, just like it did last year. And despite how difficult it is to win back-to-back MVP awards, LeBron James is the best option for the award at the moment after becoming the first player to go six games averaging 30 or more points while shooting over 50 percent from the field.
A little further down in the standings is Chicago. Derrick Rose has yet to play this season after tearing his ACL in the playoffs last year. When he will return remains a mystery, but against the Pacers three days ago, Rose returned to the bench, giving his team hope. Without Rose, I don’t see the Bulls going too far into the playoffs, although they have raised some eyebrows this year, currently in fourth place without their leader.
Not to say that the squad isn’t still extremely talented with players like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. My worry with Rose is that he could come back too early. There’s been a lot of pressure for him to return and knees can be extremely vulnerable after serious injuries like an ACL tear. If it were me, I’d take my time coming back.
If there’s one team that I think will contend with Miami, it will be Indiana. The Heat isn’t a big team, preferring to play with a small lineup and put James at the power forward and has struggled when other teams pound the ball inside.
Last year, Indiana and the Heat matched up in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Miami took the series 4-2, but it didn’t come with ease. This season Indiana is an undefeated 2-0 against the defending champs and both victories have come by at least 10 points.
Paul George is having a stellar year, averaging 17.6 points and nearly eight rebounds per contest. Yet, the Pacers have plenty of great players around him with David West, George Hill and Roy Hibbert all averaging double digit scoring. With Danny Granger coming back from injury, I’d expect to see Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In the Western Conference, San Antonio currently has the best record in the NBA at 47-14, but it will be interesting to see how the Spurs do down the stretch. The team just lost Tony Parker, who certainly was a candidate for MVP, due to an ankle sprain and will be out for four weeks. Parker was having arguably the best season of his career, averaging 26.1 points, 8.3 assists and four rebounds per game. He was also shooting about 54 percent from the field. The team will need its veterans like Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan to step up.
Last season, the Spurs were the leading team in the west going into playoffs as well, but were beaten by Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same happen again this year. San Antonio is full of veterans that know how to win, but the athleticism and young talent of OKC will be too much to handle for the Spurs.
Finally, fighting for a playoff spot in the west has been Houston. They’ve currently taken the seventh spot in conference, primarily due to the outstanding play of James Harden. The ex-Thunder player now has the spotlight on him. There’s no Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook to overshadow him and Harden has delivered.
While I thought he might struggle due to the fact that opponents could key in on him, Harden has stepped up his game. He’s averaging 26.2 points per game compared to 16.8 points per game last season. He’s also dishing 5.7 assists per game, over two more than last year. Houston might not be a contender for a title, but Harden had certainly solidified himself as one of the great scorers in the game today.
With a full season this year, injuries will certainly come into play as many teams start to get worn down from the taxing schedule. My prediction is that there will be a rematch of last year’s NBA finals with Miami taking on OKC. That wouldn’t be too bad as fans would once again be treated to two of the best players in the game going head to head.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of March 6th, 2013′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.