Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
Team that will gain the most ground down the stretch run of the season?
David Aldridge: I’m going with Philly. Doug Collins has his players believing in the system and in each other, and one would expect bigger second-half contributions from rookie Evan Turner after he struggled early. The Sixers also have a +4 home/road split the rest of the way, and they’re 17-9 at Wells Fargo Center this season. They have a long west swing in mid-March and they have road games afterward at Miami and Chicago. If they’re still in the race after that, it’s mostly downhill sledding the rest of the way.
Steve Aschburner: The Milwaukee Bucks have the most room for improvement. Their lineup has been riddled by injuries to the point that coach Scott Skiles hasn’t yet had a full complement for practice. The guys who have been on the floor have struggled mightily to score: The Bucks are last in offensive rating (101.0, compared to 107.0 league average) and are 24th in field-goal percentage overall and from the arc. Signees such as Drew Gooden, Corey Maggette and John Salmons have disappointed. But that mess has produced 22 victories already. The schedule is friendlier now and Skiles got a surge down the stretch last season that they might be able to replicate.
Fran Blinebury: Lakers. The fun and games and tap-dancing are over. Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson will drive the Lakers to improve their concentration level enough to move from No. 3 in the West to No. 2. If you don’t think that’s a big jump, consider it would give them the home-court advantage in a second-round series against Dallas and the Lakers will most definitely need it.
Art Garcia: A day shy of the deadline and unsure what other rabbits will be pulled out of what other hats, I’m going with Phoenix. It’s also easier to move up through the bottom end of the playoff standings than the top, and with so many teams bunched together — Portland, New Orleans, Denver, Memphis, Golden State — the Suns are primed to make a push. Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Vince Carter are proving there’s plenty left in the tank and if Phoenix gets out of an upcoming six-game roadie relatively unscathed, another postseason trip is there for the old timers.
Scott Howard-Cooper: I would have said Memphis if not for the Rudy Gay injury. So let’s follow the encouraging signs in Phoenix. The Suns have a road-heavy finish, which isn’t usually conducive to surging, but they’re playing better and teams ahead of them will be dealing with major transitions, the Jazz with the coaching change and the Nuggets with a big trade. The team that will be the most improved, though, is Chicago, thanks to the return of Joakim Noah. But the Bulls won’t gain the most ground in the standings because there isn’t that much ground to gain. Just moving up a couple places for best record overall could be significant if they make it deep in the playoffs.
Shaun Powell: I’m going to take the Clippers here. This isn’t the same team that started 3-15. In a sense, they’ve already gained much over the last two months, but there’s still room to grow. Assuming Blake Griffin is done sucking oxygen after his busy weekend, this team can climb four or five spots and make a serious push for the final playoff spot. Basically, I’m saying they’ll have to jump over a car to get there, and we know at least one of their players is capable.
John Schuhmann: Of teams with a shot at the playoffs, I think it will be Milwaukee, for four reasons. 1. No team has underachieved more as the Bucks this season. 2. They have one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules. 3. The eight seed is within reach, so they’ll be motivated. 4. They had the league’s fifth best record (22-9) after the break last season.
Sekou Smith: Last night‘s ugly loss to the ‘Melo-free Nuggets aside, the Hang Time Grizzlies have a chance to chase their own destiny in the Western Conference playoff race. They only have nine road games the rest of the way (compared to 14 home games). I‘d feel much better about their chances if Rudy Gay was healthy. But even without him, opportunity knocks. They‘re 7-3 in their last 10 games and play much better at home (19-8) than they do on the road (12-19). After nearly two years of driving their hype machine, the Grizzlies have to deliver.