Posted: Tuesday February 28, 2012 11:53AM ; Updated: Wednesday February 29, 2012 12:03PM
Britt Robson
Britt Robson>NBA POWER RANKINGS

Race for final playoff spots begins

Story Highlights

Preseason favorites Miami and Oklahoma City enter the second half Nos. 1 and 2

The Bobcats are as bad as feared and sit at No. 30, but the middle is chaos

The second half will be a sprint as the final playoff spots will be determined

Entering the second half of the season, the Power Rankings have predictable casts at the top and bottom, and plenty of dynamic movement among the teams in between. Preseason favorites Miami and Oklahoma City own the top, and last year's top regular-season teams, San Antonio and Chicago, are right below. At the other end, the Bobcats are as bad as most people feared, and the dregs of the Eastern Conference comprise five of the bottom six teams.

But the middle is chaos. There are teams struggling mightily to survive injuries to key personnel, such as Atlanta, Denver, and Memphis. There are disappointments like Boston, New York and Portland, and surprising overachievers such as Minnesota and Cleveland. This is where the final playoff spots in each conference will be determined, and the race is extremely fluid.

So buckle up. Because you know that cliché about the season being less of a sprint than a marathon? Well, in this post-lockout season, it's a sprint, with the games coming fast and furious and the finish line not that far away.

(All stats and records are through Monday, Feb. 27 unless otherwise noted.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Miami Heat
Last Week: 1
Miami Heat (27-7)
The bad news for Heat opponents is that Dwyane Wade is flashing his vintage scoring prowess. After injuries reduced his dribble-penetration and cut his shooting percentage to 44.4 to start the season, Wade has shot 55.7 percent and gotten to the rim more than seven times per game in February. He has also dramatically reduced his three-point attempts, a wise strategy given his career 29.0 percent accuracy and bevy of teammates who can spread the floor from long distance. His return to form cements the NBA's most fearsome offensive unit, as four Miami's starters are making more than half their shots -- and Chris Bosh isn't too shabby an outlier at 49.4.
 
2Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 4
The Thunder closed out the first half with offensive fireworks against the Nuggets and Celtics and then a hard-fought victory over the Lakers played at the more deliberate pace of their taller opponents. The Thunder get the least respect of any of the NBA's four elite teams because they concentrate their scoring load among three players and produced a defensive efficiency that was just league-average in the first half. But OKC's "Big Three" are all 23 or younger, are continually refining their prodigious talents and have benefitted from 17 games of playoff experience last year. As for the defense, the player who makes the greatest impact at that end of the court, wing stopper Thabo Sefolosha, has missed 16 games with a foot injury -- the Thunder are 16-2 when he plays and 11-5 when he sits. He's expected to miss at least another three weeks, and OKC is looking at a rough road trip to Philadelphia, Orlando and Atlanta before returning home to face Dallas. But if Sefolosha can return in time to re-establish his place in the rotation before the playoffs, the Thunder will be a tough matchup for anyone.
 
3San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 2
Gregg Popovich has punted two games -- the overtime loss in Dallas last month the shellacking in Portland last week when he rested Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. But the latest setback for Manu Ginobili (strained oblique) has already compromised the Spurs' veteran leadership heading into the second half. And second-guessing Popovich on personnel matters involving players with whom he has won multiple rings doesn't seem wise from where I sit. When Ginobili is healthy, four of San Antonio's starters are 29 or older. And Pops is keeping three of them under 30 minutes per game, while honing a bench that can help the team weather the second half and, hopefully, a deep playoff run. The strategy is paying off so far.
 
4Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 3
Center Joakim Noah is quietly having an excellent year. He's played every game for a team that has been besieged with injuries for much of the first half, and even in this lockout-shortened season, he's on pace to set a career high in total minutes. His triple-double (13 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in fewer than 30 minutes) against Milwaukee in the final game before the All-Star break punctuates his career-best 2.4 assists per game, which he has accomplished while reducing his turnovers. His active hands and vigilance on the boards helps extend possessions without requiring touches or shots in the offensive sets, an ideal complement to point guard Derrick Rose, who is shooting just 35 percent in the 200-plus minutes he has been on the court without Noah. Perhaps most importantly, Noah is versatile enough to play against both smaller, quicker teams and opponents who feature a classic low-post center, a flexibility that helps the Bulls retain continuity in the playoffs.
 
5Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 8
The Clippers benefitted from Chris Paul aggressively looking for his own shot during the first half, and they need more of the same, plus continued good health, from their superstar point guard to maximize their chances of a deep playoff run. Paul is dropping dimes at the lowest rate (8.6) since his rookie season while shooting nearly as often as in his career-best seasons in '08 and '09. Most significantly, his three-point attempts (3.2 per game) and accuracy (44 percent) are career-highs, creating space in the half-court offense for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan near the hoop and Caron Butler and Mo Williams in the corners. Consequently, the Clippers' offensive efficiency has leapt from 22nd a year ago to fourth in the NBA this season. They're scoring 15.75 more points per 100 possessions with Paul on the court compared to when he sits thus far this season.
 
6Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 7
Assuming Kobe Bryant's broken nose doesn't keep him off the court, Mike Brown's division of point guard minutes between Derek Fisher and Steve Blake will be one of the more intriguing second-half developments for the Lakers. Since Blake returned from a rib injury, the two have been statistically indistinguishable over the past 10 games, averaging approximately six points per game on woeful 37.7 percent shooting, with Blake getting the slight edge in playing time. Thus far, all but four of Fisher's 866 minutes this season have been played with Kobe, but according to NBA.com's StatsCube, Kobe has been more aggressive and the team has performed better when he and Blake share the backcourt. Of course numbers alone can't account for Fisher's extensive history with Kobe in crunch time and his proven ability to thrive under pressure, with the latest example being Fisher's crucial fourth-quarter jumpers in the win over Dallas last week.
 
7Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 5
Vince Carter has been an unsung hero for the Mavericks this season. According to Basketball Value, Dallas scores more points per possession and allows fewer points per possession with Carter on the floor than with any other player. Overall, the team improves by a whopping 19.47 points per 100 possessions when he plays -- 12.80 on offense and 6.67 on defense. Yet a look at his individual numbers shows that he's boosting his team by becoming a complementary player; only his three-point shooting percentage stands out. After being much-maligned for selfishness and a lack of effort at various times over his 14-year career, Carter has remade himself into a glue guy who has dished out five or more assists more often than he's scored 20 or more points. Dallas is 13-6 when he starts, 11-4 when he plays more than 25 minutes and barely over .500 without that level of contribution.
 
8Orlando Magic
Last Week: 6
Dwight Howard, one of the game's three or four best players, has asked to be traded, and in similar situations with other teams, the superstar almost never changes his mind. If the Magic are convinced Howard will be leaving anyway, it would behoove them to make a deal. If they believe the additional money they can offer him under the collective bargaining agreement, along with the team's strong showing this season, is enough to keep him, they should sit tight. Why would Howard engage the distraction and strained goodwill of openly flirting with leaving town if he wasn't serious about a change in scenery? That's the question the Magic brass need to ask themselves, instead of the more plaintive "How are we ever going to replace Dwight Howard?"
 
9Houston Rockets
Last Week: 10
While the Rockets have established themselves as good bets to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009, shooting guard Kevin Martin has had a difficult season. Martin, who was part of the blockbuster Chris Paul trade that was voided, is making four fewer trips to the line per game this season, resulting in 3.5 fewer conversions (a significant ding in anyone's scoring average), is the only one of Houston's starters who improves the team's plus/minus ratio when he sits (primarily due to his porous defense), and played 28 minutes per game in February, down from 32.6 on the season. Martin's five-year, $53-million contract doesn't expire until the end of next season, making him virtually untradeable. His accuracy from the free-throw line is valuable in clutch situations. But Houston has enticing back-court alternatives, including subbing Courtney Lee for Martin, or going with the point-guard tandem of Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic.
 
10Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 11
The Pacers need to regain the defensive momentum that propelled them to a 16-6 record to start the season. With a pair of 6-8 wings in Paul George and Danny Granger and 7-2 center Roy Hibbert to protect the rim, Indiana is long and rangy at three positions. And with Dahntay Jones, Tyler Hansbrough and (when healthy) Jeff Foster among the backups, its second unit is laden with physical grinders who aren't afraid to intimidate. But that ruggedness and zeal mysteriously disappeared during a five-losses-in-seven-days stretch in February, when the team that once led the NBA defensive field-goal percentage was allowing at least 46 percent. Not coincidentally, combo guard George Hill was out with a chip fracture in his ankle most of the month, depriving the Pacers of the flexibility of better defending taller point guards or quicker off guards.
 
11Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 14
The Grizzlies went 7-2 in the last two weeks before the break, including a 4-1 record in games decided by five points or less. Aside from a rapid recovery from All-Star power forward Zach Randolph (torn MCL), Memphis would perhaps benefit most in the second half from more three-point attempts from Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo. For the second straight year, the team is last in attempts and in the bottom third in accuracy from beyond the arc, but Gay has topped 39 percent both seasons and Mayo has dropped only slightly, from 37.1 to 36.4 percent -- still above average. Since Gay and Mayo carry much of the load from the perimeter anyway, there wouldn't be a great disruption to the offense (other than fewer treys from Mike Conley and the other Grizzlies in the backcourt). And more converted three-pointers would open up the paint for Marc Gasol and for Randolph if/when he returns.
 
12Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 9
The lack of a low-post threat puts a lot of pressure on the Sixers' jump-shooters and top-rated defense to maintain their excellence to get home-court advantage in the playoffs. Philly's marvelous wing players vaulted the team to seventh in the NBA in steals and ninth in fast-break points, but because they don't pound it inside in their half-court sets, they still shoot the smallest percentage of their field-goal attempts at the rim -- the game's most accurate shot -- of any team, according to Hoopdata. Meanwhile, the Sixers are second only to woeful Charlotte in their percentage of attempts from 16 to 23 feet out, generally the least accurate shot. Philly also gets the lowest percent of their points from free throws of any team. Credit its talented guards and forwards for their 11th ranking in offensive efficiency.
 
13Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 12
Because the Hawks were 7-1 in games decided by five points or less, they finished the first half 20-14, despite scoring only three more points than the opposition. This blend of grit and luck partially compensated for the absence of Al Horford, but as the injuries mounted, the situation began to fray in February. By the final week before the break, Atlanta was giving minutes to Jerry Stackhouse and Erick Dampier, while Tracy McGrady -- a youngster by comparison -- was agitating for more playing time, and Joe Johnson's sore knee combined with the snubbing of Josh Smith meant that no Hawks played in the All-Star game.
 
14New York Knicks
Last Week: 16
At this point, there is nothing in the Knicks' second half that could be of any surprise. Jeremy Lin has played with Carmelo Anthony a grand total of 122 minutes and with Amar'e Stoudemire 230 minutes, and the Knicks have been outscored during the stints of both tandems. Anthony and Stoudemire together has been an expensive disaster this season. That failure, mixed with pervasive Lin craze, has spawned good words about fitting together and playing the right way, and with all that talent, it wouldn't be surprising if the Knicks found their stride and went on a tear. But Lin performed best with a more modest supporting cast, and Stoudemire and Anthony (not to mention the latest acquisition, J.R. Smith), all cherish having the ball because they don't function very well without it. So with the pressure cooker at a whistling intensity, it also wouldn't be surprising if the whole thing blew apart.
 
15Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 13
If there is a silver lining to the injuries that have derailed the Nuggets (4-10 in February), it has been the effectiveness of top draft pick Kenneth Faried. After getting only 30 total minutes before this month, Faried has started eight times and produced eight points and 6.4 rebounds in just 18.7 minutes per game in February. He already has two double-doubles and four games with at least four offensive rebounds, but at 6-foot-8, 228 pounds, he's defensively undersized at power forward. Where he fits in Denver's overcrowded frontcourt once Nene returns and Timofey Mozgov's ankle is fully healed is unclear, but Faried has shown enough to justify being taken with the 22nd overall pick last summer.
 
16Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 15
Rick Adelman again demonstrated what a resourceful turnaround artist he can be by mixing and matching the Wolves' young roster during their final game before the All-Star break, at home against the Jazz. An exhausted Kevin Love and injury-hampered Nikola Pekovic were getting overwhelmed in the paint by Utah's fearsome frontcourt duo of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap throughout the first three quarters. So Adelman went small, putting Love on the slower Jefferson, rookie Derrick Williams on Millsap, and then instructing point guards J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour to create their own shots. While Pekovic and Ricky Rubio watched from the bench and Love went scoreless while devoting his remaining energy to stopping Jefferson, Minnesota erased a 16-point deficit in the final nine minutes. Williams rose to the occasion and outplayed Millsap, and Barea and Ridnour combined for 23 points, including Ridnour's floater at the buzzer to win it. It was the Wolves' 17th victory, as many as (or more than) Adelman's predecessor, Kurt Rambis, won in either of his two 82-game seasons at the helm.
 
17Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 18
Don't expect the promotion of Jamal Crawford to starting point guard to be a long-term move. Nate McMillan has a more caustic disdain for turnovers than most NBA coaches. In recent seasons, he's had Andre Miller (career assist-to turnover ratio of 2.73) and Brandon Roy (2.54) running the offense. Even with his struggles this season, Raymond Felton's career ratio is 2.55. Crawford hasn't registered two assists for every turnover in a season since 2007-08, and has a career ratio of 1.91. Yes, he's an explosive scorer, but his career true shooting percentage is 52.6, below Miller's (53.1) and Roy's (54.9) and not so far above Felton's (49.6) that McMillan will want Crawford, a shoot-first combo guard, as the primary facilitator when his cornerstone LaMarcus Aldridge is posting up or working the pick-and-roll.
 
18Boston Celtics
Last Week: 17
After a streaky February that was bracketed by five-game winning and losing streaks and a sub-.500 record overall, the Celtics need an early second-half surge to stay relevant. After a road game against the Cavs, they play four at home before hitting the road for nine of 10, and figuring out how to get more easy points should be a priority. The Celtics are seventh in overall field-goal accuracy (45.5 percent) and sixth on three-pointers (38), but they don't get put-backs (last in offensive rebounds) or many free throws (28th in the NBA), so their offensive efficiency is 23rd, wiping out the advantage of their fourth-rated defense. There isn't a quality post-up player among the big men on the roster, especially with Jermaine O'Neal's nagging injuries. Rajon Rondo helps boost points in the paint, and his improved mid-range jumper helps set up those drives. But shooting 61.5 percent from the line reduces his efficiency. Another source of offense aside from the Big Three is 6-10 rookie forward JaJuan Johnson, who has been getting more minutes with injuries to Celtics' other big men, and his making 53.5 percent of his shots.
 
19Utah Jazz
Last Week: 19
Utah Jazz (15-19)
The Jazz are 3-10 in February, a blessing in disguise if it shifts their focus toward the future. Genuine rebuilding will require some difficult personnel decisions and probably a deal or two before the trade deadline. In the frontcourt, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are both enjoying fine seasons, but they need to accommodate the development of Derrick Favors and especially Enes Kanter, the only classic center among them. Trading Jefferson or Millsap, preferably for draft picks and/or a point guard, would reduce the logjam and discomfort for a pair of proud veterans. Out on the wings, Utah has to determine whether it wants to re-sign C.J. Miles with both Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks in the mix. In any case, both Miles and Josh Howard could be valuable trade chips next month. Finally, is the underachievement of point guard Devin Harris simply a bad match between a team's system and a player's skill set, or did Harris peak in 2009? Either way, Utah needs a point guard who can help facilitate at both ends of the court.
 
20Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 22
The Warriors' have the makings of a phenomenal team. Center Ekpe Udoh and guard Stephen Curry are their most fundamentally sound players. During the 217 minutes they've played together, Golden State is plus-20.2 points per 36 minutes. And if you add Brandon Rush, Monta Ellis and David Lee to that duo, they have thrashed opponents 111 to 64 during the nearly 44 minutes they have played together. The problem is the lack of joint playing time. Udoh is averaging only 20.1 minutes a game (although that number is steadily climbing) and Curry has been beset by injuries most of the season. By the way, the above-mentioned quintet are all signed through at least the end of next season with the exception of Rush, who can be secured for the $4.1 million qualifying offer.
 
21Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 23
The next two weeks will provide a stern test for Cleveland's chimerical playoff quest. After hosting eight-seeded Boston on Tuesday, the Cavs play the Knicks, Nuggets and Thunder on the road, and the Bulls and Rockets at home among their next eight games. Fortunately, point guard Kyrie Irving shows no signs of hitting the fabled "rookie wall," following his dreadful 2-of-13 shooting display in an ugly loss to New Orleans to close out the first half with an MVP performance in the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend. A declining field-goal percentage is the only significant consequence of Irving's increased playing time, and even that is counterbalanced by slightly greater accuracy from three-point territory and 94.1 percent shooting from the free-throw line in February. Best of all, Irving has cut down on his turnovers. If he and Antawn Jamison can tighten up their defense until Anderson Varejao returns from a fractured wrist, the Cavs could defy expectations and play meaningful games well into the spring.
 
22Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 21
The Bucks are only 2 1/2 games out of the eighth seed in the top-heavy East but have no shot at the postseason without a healthy center or productive Brandon Jennings. Andrew Bogut is gone for at least another month or two with a broken ankle, Drew Gooden has missed the last four games with wrist and knee woes, and neither rookie Jon Leuer nor second-year forward-center Larry Sanders can consistently match up with opposing centers. The Bucks could try to deal disgruntled Stephen Jackson for a big man -- would the Wolves, who desperately need a capable swingman be willing to trade Darko Milicic and Anthony Randolph for Jackson? -- or hope that Gooden's health improves. Either way, Jennings will have to perform at the high level he set earlier in the season, rather than the 33.5 percent shooting (including just 22 percent on three-pointers) in the last 10 games.
 
23Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 20
Phoenix Suns (14-20)
The Suns' bench was an albatross throughout the first half, and Shannon Brown and Josh Childress rank among the disappointments. Brown has the higher profile because of his recent stint with the Lakers, but the small reward he has provided comes with the low risk of his one-year, $3.5 million contract. He is getting about the same amount of playing time he received in L.A., but poor shooting (39 percent) and play-making (more turnovers than assists) overwhelm his above-average defense. Childress has been lost in Phoenix ever since signing a five-year, $33.5 million contract in the summer of 2010. He has fallen in and out of the rotation this season and hasn't made a free throw (in only two attempts) in 257 minutes of play.
 
24Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 25
Isiah Thomas -- the latest "Mr. Irrelevant" as the final player selected in last summer's draft -- has given the Kings a boost while starting at point guard the last four games. At just 5-9, Thomas needs to push the pace to be effective and complement nascent stars DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, who both run the floor well, and Marcus Thornton, who is 20-for-28 on shots at the rim in those four games and 10-for-11 at the hoop in his past two. It doesn't hurt that Thomas has replaced the older and slower John Salmons in the starting lineup, who is having a terrible season, or that the three-guard setup with Evans and Thornton is also costing Jimmer Fredette playing time, which improves Sacramento's defense. There will be games in which Thomas' size is a factor (although he thrived on Wednesday against 6-4 John Wall), but the Kings can adjust by sliding Evans over to the point. That said, the default position in Sacramento should be regular minutes for Thomas, who's been a real tonic for the team.
 
25Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 28
The Raptors obviously need a more productive second half from shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who is having a wretched season. According to the shot locations chart at Hoopdata, he is shooting well below his career average at every place on the floor except from three-point range, where his renewed emphasis on the distance game is still yielding a a below-average 30.5 percent accuracy. But with top scorer Andrea Bargnani logging just 13 games due to injuries, and point-producers Jerryd Bayless and Linas Kleiza also frequently hurt, the threat of DeRozan provides a smidgen of hope for an offense that ranks 28th in efficiency. According to Basketball Value, the Raptors average a ridiculously low .925 points per possession when DeRozan sits, compared to .99.9 when he plays. The good news is that DeRozan closed out the first half with a season-best three-game span where he averaged 25.3 points on 58.8 percent shooting.
 
26Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 24
The Pistons missed a golden opportunity to enter the break with positive momentum, dropping games at Cleveland and Toronto after winning seven of nine. One player above blame is center Greg Monroe, who had 49 points, 25 rebounds, nine assists and four steals in the two losses and is averaging a double-double and shooting 52.3 percent in the first dozen games of February. The season-long problem for Detroit has been finding a sidekick for Monroe who is both creative and consistent on offense. The team's winning run earlier this month was fueled by combo guard Rodney Stuckey, who looked listless and was scoreless in 18 minutes against the Raptors. Stuckey, fourth on the team in minutes, is shooting 41.9 -- better than the other top rotation players behind Monroe, guard Brandon Knight (41.3) and small forward Tayshaun Prince (40.6).
 
27New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 26
The Nets haven't had a five-man unit play as much as 70 minutes together, a mark of discontinuity that only Charlotte comes close to matching. The return of center Brook Lopez -- who at least initially won't play both ends of back-to-backs to spare his healing foot -- furthers the jumble. With Deron Williams and MarShon Brooks, the offense hasn't suffered (New Jersey ranks 15th in offensive efficiency), but the Nets rank last in opposing field-goal percentage both from beyond the three-point arc and overall. They also allow the most assists, and would allow even more points per game if opponents didn't inexplicably convert just 71.4 percent of their free throws, the lowest accuracy in the league. No team has a greater need for the reigning three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard.
 
28New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 29
The Hornets closed out a difficult first half by winning four of six to double their victory total. Yes, their best performer during that stretch was probably Chris Kaman, who is the team's highest-paid player and on the trading block. But a few others provide hope for the future. Greivis Vasquez is averaging 11.5 points and 6.9 assists over his last 10 games. Gustavo Ayon, a 26-year-old former Mexican basketball star who is 6-10, averages 5.8 points and five rebounds in 17.8 minutes while shooting 58.3 percent. Al-Farouq Aminu, a young, athletic, 6-9 forward with the potential to be an elite defender, and veteran Trevor Ariza is finally healthy and contributing. When Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry return from injuries, the Hornets will be a spoiler for some would-be playoff contenders down the stretch.
 
29Washington Wizards
Last Week: 27
Losing at home to the Kings, who were 3-17 on the road, capped an ugly first half of the season for the Wizards. Interim coach Randy Wittman called out his team for not getting the ball to their big men -- Nick Young was 6-of-23 from the field (including a ridiculous 360-degree spin on a missed layup) with one assist, while center JaVale McGee was took only four shots in 25-plus minutes. John Wall was just a rebound shy of a triple-double, but he allowed Isiah Thomas to burn him for 10 fourth-quarter points -- a key reason the Kings were able to pull out the victory. The Wizards appeared more talented and more immature than Sacramento while ceding 115 points to ensure their 23rd loss.
 
30Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 30
Credit Kemba Walker for trying to make himself into a point guard on a team that ranks near or at the bottom in every offensive category. Over the last 10 games, the 6-1 Walker averaged 4.3 assists against just one turnover, improving his season marks to 3.8 assists versus 1.8 turnovers. But Walker hasn't ignited the Bobcats, who are scoring just .92 points per possession when he is on the court, compared to the .97 generated when D.J. Augustin is running the team. Walker's defense is also suspect, both by the numbers and to the naked eye. With Augustin, Corey Maggette and Reggie Williams all back from injury and Gerald Henderson due to return this week, coach Paul Silas has to figure out where, how often and with whom to play the No. 9 pick.

 
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