While the bottom feeders in the Eastern Conference are seemingly doing their best to stay out of the playoff race (the difference between a legitimate shot at Greg Oden and a first-round sweep is frighteningly small), their West counterparts are battling for the conference's final two playoff spots.
That's all there is really. Six teams (Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Utah, Houston and the Lakers) have effectively locked up a trip the postseason. With the exception of Memphis, the remaining eight are jockeying for position, with no team more than five games behind. We've narrowed that list to the five teams with the most credible shot at claiming one of those last two spots, and handicapped their chances of avoiding a trip to Secaucus.
Current position: 7th
Games left: 27 (12 home, 15 road; 14 against teams above .500)
Key dates: 3/6 vs. Hornets; 3/7 at Golden State; 4/7 at Clippers; 4/13 at Hornets; 4/16 vs. Minnesota
Analysis: Look up mediocre in the dictionary and you will find a powder blue Nuggets logo. Denver is 14-15 at home and 13-13 on the road, and its two key players (Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony) can't seem to get on the same page. The Nuggets have become the Knicks of the West, a talented team with little chemistry, the kind of group that could run you off the floor one night and let you have the run of the place the next. Without Andre Miller, the offense has no facilitator; half-court sets usually involve Iverson or Anthony taking someone off the dribble. Still, Denver's talent cannot be overlooked.
Los Angeles Clippers
Current position: 8th
Games left: 26 (12 home, 14 road; 14 against teams above .500)
Key dates: 3/9 at Golden State; 4/7 vs. Denver; 4/10 vs. Hornets; 4/18 at Hornets
Analysis: Donald Sterling must be squirming in his overpriced courtside seat. After years of being vilified for not spending enough to make the Clippers a contender, he opened the vault to lock up Elton Brand, Chris Kaman and Sam Cassell (among others) to multiyear deals. And this is what he gets? Shaun Livingston's gruesome knee injury opens the door for more minutes for Corey Maggette, but Maggette is a scorer and not inclined to move the ball the way Livingston was. If the Clippers were looking for a reason to bag the season(and all indications point to a mutiny against coach Mike Dunleavy), Livingston's injury should be the straw to break their backs.
Prediction: Out of the playoffs