Saturday, April 14, 2007

The 40 Club

As of this morning, the Lakers, Clippers, and Warriors all have 40 losses with five days remaining in the regular season. Two playoff spots are up for grabs, which means that there are at least three teams that aren't tanking or resting players down the stretch. What else does it mean?

- It means that the Mavs are watching this whole situation very carefully. They have lost five straight games to the Warriors and seem to struggle with various matchups and G-State's style of play. There is also the Nellie Factor, which seems to turn Avery and Co. from a group of cold-blooded killers into a squad of head cases. How ironic would it be if Nellie thwarted the greatest season in Dallas franchise history with the biggest first round upset since Nuggets-over-Sonics (maybe ever)? Luckily for Dallas, the deck is stacked against the Warriors, as they own none of the tiebreakers.

- It means that the current playoff system might take another shot from critics. The Lakers hold all the tiebreakers here, so unless they lose (they play Sacramento and Seattle, both of whom gave up a long time ago) AND both the Clippers and Warriors win out, they are going to make the playoffs despite their best efforts to choke the season away. However, between the Warriors and Clippers, the tiebreaker is very interesting and seemingly not at all fair. If those two teams tie (they are both 39-40), the spot goes to the Clippers by virtue of a better record within the division. Of course, this makes no sense as division play should have nothing to do with conference playoff spots. This is going to come to light, because the Warriors have a far better record agianst Western Conference teams. By pretty much any method of analysis, conference record is the better tiebreaker. So nice job again, NBA. Throw this in with the Bulls/Cavs situation (where the #3 team in the East is going to get dropped to the #5 seed and a matchup with Miami), and it is obvious that the bandaid solution to the Mavs-Spurs series from last year isn't doing much good at all. There is absolutely no reason to factor in the divisions any longer. Give the divisions winners a banner to hang in the arena, but otherwise just put the top eight teams in from each conference. They all play each other four times anyway. (As for cross-pollinating the field with the top 16 throughout the NBA, this I don't like so much because there are imbalanced schedules and travel issues to worry about.)

- It means that the Suns are going to have a tough series on their hands. Phoenix is still playing hard and digging deep for the #2 seed (and home court advantage in a potential clash with the Spurs in the second round), but they won't get off easy in the first round of the playoffs. About two weeks ago it looked like they were going to get a Nuggets team that they could handle pretty easily, but now things are murky. The Lakers played Phoenix very tough last year (3-1 lead in the series) and believe they can beat the Suns (in fact, I think they tried to tank a little to avoid the Spurs, but now they can't seem to stop the bleeding). The Clippers are getting healthy and playing well for the first time all season as Maggette is taking over, Brand is finding a second wind, and the Hart/60% Sam Cassell point guard combo seems to be working. The Clips will be able to harrass Nash with Hart, Ross, and Mobley just as they did with Livingston and Ross in last year's series. As for the Warriors, they are 12-5 over the last 17 (with two of those losses coming against San Antonio) and are playing great. They also manhandled Phoenix for three quarters (before nearly choking the game away) a few weeks ago in the Bay. With Jason Richardson and Baron Davis finally getting healthy and joining Monta Ellis and Stephon Jackson, G-State is really the only team in the league with as much speed and talent on the perimeter as the Suns. Throw in guys like Biedrins, Pietrus, and Barnes and they have plenty of athleticism to match up. So no matter what, the Suns face trouble. They are either going to get a nemesis in the Lakers, a rejuvinated preseason favorite in the Clippers, or a red hot Warriors squad.

- It means the Nuggets are screwed. I know their hot streak has everyone excited, but I'm here to tell you that they are done. They were sitting pretty good in the #7 spot until they decided to start winning as the Lakers began losing. While Phoenix would have rather played Denver in the first round than the other three possibilities, the reverse is also true. Denver would have had a much better shot against the Suns than the Spurs. The reason is simple: officiating. I've never seen a team get screwed more than the Nuggets this season. Every whistle seems to go the other way. Couple that with San Antonio's Svengali-like ability to get nearly every call and this series is over before it starts. Just wait; there will be three or four close games in this series that look like possible Nuggets wins until a series of horrible calls hands the game to the Spurs. I'm already depressed just thinking about it.

Anyway, keep an eye out on these three teams as they joust down the stretch. The Lakers clearly have the advantage with 40 wins to go with those 40 losses (as mentioned above, the Clippers and Warriors both have 39 wins), plus they play two terrible teams AND have the tiebreakers. Hard to see them missing the playoffs. The Clippers also have a tiebreaker over G-State, but they have a slightly harder schedule, getting a game against Phoenix.

Personally, while I don't particularly like any of these teams, I just hope that the Warriors make it. They have always had terrible luck (like the unlucky break of having Chris Mullin as a GM) and loyal fans, so it would be nice to see them get in. Plus, they are actually playing well. Neither the Clippers or Lakers "deserve it," so I don't care which L.A. teams limps into the postseason.

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