With Erick Dampier out for two-to-three weeks with a stress fracture in his right foot, and most likely another week or two tacked on for him to waddle back into shape, the Mavericks have to use the next month to establish an up-tempo attack in preparation for the playoffs. Though the Mavericks have played well without Steve Nash, the unpredictability that marked Nash's time at the helm has been absent with Jason Terry running the show. Now that Damp is on the bench, Keith Van Horn is in town and Mike Finley is getting back in gear, Dallas has to re-adopt the small ball philosophy and develop a second way to fly. Getting Darrell Armstrong (31 percent from the floor as a Mav) back on board is also of paramount importance.
The Nuggets need to win more than 70 percent of their remaining games just to have a chance at the playoffs, so George Karl really needs to tighten the rotation. If it means Carmelo Anthony breaks down, or Marcus Camby's limbs fall off, so be it; Denver has to show something for the moves they made in the offseason, and for their treatment of former coach Jeff Bzdelik. The Nuggets never knew what to do with Rodney White, which was a waste, but Eddie Najera should give them the hustle and grit their frontcourt needs -- provided he can stay healthy.
Having won nine of their last 10 after putting to bed the Larry Brown-to-New York nonsense, the season is finally going as most predicted for the defending champs. The rest of the campaign needs to be spent on smoothing out the rotation and making sure every player is on the same page going into the playoffs. During last spring's championship run, the Pistons received game-changing efforts from Elden Campbell, Mike James and Corliss Williamson during several of their wins. Now they need to make sure Antonio McDyess and the two Carlos' (Delfino and Arroyo) are motivated and ready to contribute at a moment's notice.
Golden State Warriors
Baron Davis rushed back to the Hornets this week to give the Warriors a reason to trade for him, but we wouldn't be surprised to see him take it easy for the rest of the year in order to hit the summer healthy. Because this team is so hopelessly capped-out, one would hope that Golden State would be able to play their nucleus of Davis, Jason Richardson, Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy Jr. as many minutes as possible -- but we get the feeling they'll get plenty of opportunities next season and the one following; the roster is that inflexible. Hopefully Davis returns to form in order to give the Warriors a sense of who they as they head into the offseason.
Trading Maurice Taylor for two useless players and one year of cap relief is a little curious, but they more than made up for it by stealing Mike James from the cash-strapped Bucks. Though the team has lost two straight without do-everything guard Bob Sura, the Rockets need to see how long they can work without him, and take advantage of their 1.5-game lead over the injured Grizzlies in the playoff bracket. That won't be the case come May, when they'll need Sura, whose play was instrumental in their recent eight-game winning streak. James should help Sura get to then postseason healthy and rested while the continued improvement of Yao Ming will keep them in games.
At the press conference that saw Jermaine O'Neal accept the award for Most Improved Player back in '02, the Pacers center/forward told anyone who would listen that he expected to earn the MVP award next. As the primary option on a depleted Pacers squad, he has his chance this season. But he'll need help from his backcourt. Teams understand Jamaal Tinsley and Stephen Jackson can heat up from outside, but they don't mind leaving those two to double O'Neal. And with Reggie Miller set to retire this summer, the Pacers will also need to wring out whatever is left in those 39-year old legs.
Austin Croshere and Fred Jones have been given chance after chance to contribute, with varying results, which is fine and dandy if you're prepping them to contribute in the playoffs. But this is a team scrambling for that eighth playoff spot, with Chicago ahead of them and improved Celtics and 76ers squads ready to roll, so coach Rick Carlisle needs to limit the rotation and go with what's working that particular night.
Los Angeles Clippers
Coach Mike Dunleavy can try to find away to weave Chris Wilcox into a frontcourt rotation in order to raise his trade value, but other than that, it's hard to think of anything happening over the next 28 games that could change the Clippers' fortunes. They continually refuse to take advantage of their cap space during the offseason, so it hardly matters what sort of internal advancements they can make over the season's last two months. We were looking forward to watching rookie Shaun Livingston, or even Marko Jaric, run a wide-open show while the Clippers play playoff-spoilers, but both keep trading places on the injured list. Once again producing solid numbers, both Elton Brand and Corey Maggette don't have to do too much more in order to cement their martyrdom.
Los Angeles Lakers
The deadline has come and gone without a trade involving the purple and gold, and Lakers fans should be happy GM Mitch Kupchak didn't trigger a panic move. Showing faith in Lamar Odom should do wonders for his confidence and focus, so coach Frank Hamblen needs to take advantage of his better days and run the offense through him more often. The additions of Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw to a coaching staff now led by one of Phil Jackson's former assistants should provide the impetus for an offensive attack based around the Triangle, so the pressure should be off Kobe Bryant while Caron Butler and Odom get more touches. This team would be well-served by developing a defiant, 'us against the world' attitude to ward off ennui. It would also help slugging through 18 road games among their final 30.
Somehow, Memphis is going to have to stay healthy, because overwhelming depth won't hold serve forever. They've lost three in a row, and the injured Pau Gasol doesn't look as if he'll be returning anytime soon. Then he'll need a week or two to round back into shape after that, as he's had to stay off his inflamed arch for the last month. With Gasol and James Posey out, coach Mike Fratello needs to develop an offense that gets his players to the free-throw line more often to take some pressure off of forwards Shane Battier and Brian Cardinal, who have been forced into creating their own contested perimeter shots. The Grizzlies' outstanding January has given them a buffer to work with, but the Lakers are only a game behind Memphis' seventh-best record in the West.
Picking up Alonzo Mourning won't improve their quickness or athleticism much, but it will take a ton of pressure off Shaquille O'Neal on the defensive end. Zo's six fouls and ability to cover for teammates will keep opponents' scores in the low 90s, which is exactly where this veteran team wants things. Adding two 35-year olds, in Mourning and Steve Smith, makes that even more of an imperative. But this squad's biggest problem is its lack of a consistent spark off the bench. Putting Damon Jones in the starting lineup robbed them of that, so they need to mold Keyon Dooling into something consistent and productive by the time the playoffs roll around. If the Heat secure home-court advantage in the East early enough, coach Stan Van Gundy has to find a break for Dwyane Wade, who is averaging more than 39 minutes a game in his second season and has played through a series of injuries.
With only $28 million already spoken for on next year's cap, the Bucks need to prove to free-agent-to-be swingman Michael Redd over the season's last two months that they are worth signing with. In turn, Redd needs to prove that he is a franchise talent worth building around, and not just a scorer. A few 20-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist games wouldn't hurt (Redd currently averages 22.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists). Ostensibly, Milwaukee's purging of Mike James and Keith Van Horn gives them enough room under the cap to sign Redd, whose Bird Rights they own. For now, it gives them enough cap room to sign just about anyone, and overpaying for a limited scorer like Redd would be a mistake at this point. To his credit, Redd has gotten better in every season he's played, but building around a 22-point wing scorer is always dodgy.
The Timberwolves -- who currently are only two-and-a-half games out of the postseason bracket -- still have an outside chance at making the playoffs, but that's about the only thing they have going for them right now. They have precious little young talent to try out, Latrell Sprewell is playing out the end of his contract and if Thursday's loss to the Clippers was any indication, the All-Star break didn't do much for Sam Cassell or Kevin Garnett's aching bodies. Coach Kevin McHale's motives are pretty clear; he wants to make the playoffs, even with his broken-down crew of has-beens. Thing is, if the Wolves do grab the final seed, they have as good a chance of any in the West at taking down the Spurs. Garnett's ability to dominate on both ends gives them at least a fighting chance.
New Jersey Nets
The Nets will probably have to go 19-8 over their last 27 games to have a chance at the final seed in the East, or the Atlantic Division crown -- assuming the Celtics and Sixers continue at their pre-trade pace (a big assumption). But the Nets didn't make a move before the deadline, Vince Carter has come out of the All-Star break firing blanks and Jason Kidd has taken notice, alongside suitable offense. Like the other veteran squads on the outside of the playoffs, they'll just have to keep plugging along because they really don't have anything up their sleeves. Richard Jefferson gets his cast off on March 20, but nobody is sure as to when he'll return to form. In other words, the Nets will just have to hope Carter averages around 30 a game and that a few lucky breaks from the supporting cast go their way.
New Orleans Hornets
After a disastrous stint with the Denver Nuggets, and in spite of an underwhelming team with a dangerous ownership situation, GM Allan Bristow has turned in a few solid months with the Hornets. Trading Jim Jackson and Darrell Armstrong for prospects turned out exceedingly well, and though they had to take on Speedy Claxton, trading Baron Davis and his uninsured contract for Dale Davis' expiring deal was a coup. We wish he could have moved P.J. Brown along to a contender, but that's what the summer is for. In the meantime, they get a full two months to see what these youngsters are made of, and the onus will be on coach Byron Scott to develop the talent and encourage the kids to enjoy taking down the veteran squads who come into New Orleans with an easy win on their minds.