The race is on…for the top, or for the bottom, of the NBA standings.
This week’s resumption of the regular-season schedule after the NBA All-Star Game features some matchups that could affect playoff positioning, but we won’t have a clear picture of who has the strongest rosters for the finish until the NBA trade deadline passes at 3 p.m. Thursday.
Social media, the message boards, and your favorite talk programs on TV and radio are buzzing with all the rumored moves that teams want to make to position themselves for a strong finish or to get better in the future. At this point, it seems likely that any deals could be announced close to the deadline.
NBA TV and ESPN have cleared their programming schedules for trade deadline specials in the hour(s) leading up to the deadline to ensure fans know about all the possible and actual deals to go down. NBA TV goes on the air at 2 p.m. with its trade deadline special. ESPN starts one at 3 p.m. to report on the deals as they are completed but will report on any trade news all day as part of its SportsCenter broadcasts.
Early in the week, much of the trade talk has revolved around New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, but I expect it to be just that – talk. Danny Ainge being the dealmaker that he is, it’s possible that the Boston Celtics’ general manager ends up making a deal for Rondo if they receive a lot of picks or a very good young player(s) in return. A proposed deal discussed between the Celtics and Sacramento Kings was reported this week by Yahoo’s Marc Spears, but he indicated Rondo would not commit to signing an extension with Sacramento so the deal did not go down. If Rondo was asked about the extension, that could increase the likelihood that Ainge has to deal the mercurial Rondo. I would be shocked if Anthony were moved by the Knicks, however.
The Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Phoenix Suns, and possibly the Oklahoma City Thunder are sounding as if they want to be buyers to try to strengthen their teams this season. The Philadelphia 76ers, currently with the second-worst record in the NBA, definitely sound as if they want to be sellers (Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and Thaddeus Young) and have some talented players available. But they are looking for first-round picks in exchange, and not many teams are giving them up. The Los Angeles Lakers also could be sellers (Pau Gasol and/or Jordan Hill) to help get their payroll under the luxury tax.
Once all the wheeling and dealing is complete, we can re-evaluate which teams look like they are ready for a deep playoff run.
In the meantime, here ‘s a look at some interesting matchups this week:
Wednesday, February 19
Detroit Pistons at Charlotte Bobcats, 7 p.m. Eastern Time, on NBA League Pass (Fox Sports Detroit in Michigan)
These teams currently are in a tight battle for the final playoff spot in the East. Coming out of the All-Star break, Charlotte held the No. 8 spot, but the Pistons were only a half-game back in the standings (and the Knicks were just 2.5 games back). Both teams were 5-5 in their last 10 games heading into the break, and the Pistons already had fired first-year coach Maurice Cheeks to try to get back on track.
Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers, 10:30 p.m. ET, on ESPN
Rockets center Dwight Howard, who fled Los Angeles and Kobe Bryant in the offseason to try to help lead Houston up the playoff standings, had better bring earplugs. Howard’s decision and Bryant’s injuries have left the Lakers tied for last place in the Western Conference instead of their usual spot at the top. Lakers fans expect to play for titles and likely aren’t going to welcome Howard back to Staples Center.
San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers, 10 p.m. ET, on NBA League Pass
Normally, this would be an outstanding matchup, but the Spurs are really banged up. Coach Gregg Popovich is having one of his most amazing seasons because he has the Spurs in second place in the West, despite an array of injuries. In Wednesday’s game, the task will be especially difficult. The Spurs are expected to be without starting point guard Tony Parker, who is out for the “foreseeable future” with a “variety of maladies,” as Popovich put it, and starting big man Tiago Splitter and forward Kawhi Leonard also are expected to be out. The Blazers, who have lost six of their past 10 games, could be catching the Spurs at a good time.
Thursday, February 20
Miami Heat at Oklahoma City Thunder, 8 p.m. ET, on TNT
The Thunder are expected to get starting point guard Russell Westbrook back from knee surgery starting with this game. Even without Westbrook, they have posted the best record in the NBA in the first two-thirds of the regular season. Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant has made a strong bid to take away the MVP award from Miami’s LeBron James with Westbrook out, and James is none too happy about that kind of talk. That should make for an interesting matchup.
Friday, February 21
New York Knicks at Orlando Magic, 7 p.m. ET, on NBA League Pass (Fox Sports Florida in the Florida markets)
It’s possible that the rosters of both teams could look a little different after the trade deadline as both teams have players mentioned as potential trade chips. If you’re a Magic fan, another draw to this game is retired All-Star guard Penny Hardaway will return to be honored as part of the Orlando’s 25th anniversary season and is expected to join part of the broadcast on Fox Sports Florida. Neither team would be in the playoffs if they started today. However, the Magic are five games behind the Knicks in the Eastern Conference standings, New York leads the season series 2-0 and it crushed the Magic the first time the teams met in December.
Denver Nuggets at Chicago Bulls, 8 p.m. ET, on ESPN
The Bulls would be in the playoffs if they started today and the Nuggets would not, but that could be because the Nuggets play in the stronger Western Conference. Their records are not that much different. Chicago completed the All-Star break at 27-25, and Denver was 24-27 and looking to get back in the playoff picture. The Nuggets lead the series 1-0 but could be without starting point guard Ty Lawson, forward Danilo Gallinari (knee surgery), center JaVale McGee (stress fracture in leg), and guard Nate Robinson. Of course, the Bulls have been without starting point guard Derrick Rose (knee injury) all season.
Saturday, February 22
The NBA matchups might not be as intriguing as watching the college teams play, especially if your team is one of those involved in Tankfest 2014 for a top lottery spot in the NBA Draft. Although we do not know whether any of the young college stars will turn pro yet, Duke’s Jabari Parker will take on No. 1 Syracuse, who is led by guard Tyler Ennis and forward C.J. Fair, at 7 p.m., on ESPN. You can get a look at Kansas’ young stars in center Joel Embiid and forward Andrew Wiggins when they take on Texas at 7:30 p.m., on ESPNU. Kentucky has a roster full of players who could turn pro after one college season and faces conference foe Louisiana State at 4 p.m., on ESPN.
Sunday, February 23
Los Angeles Clippers at Oklahoma City Thunder, 1 p.m. ET, on ABC
The Thunder only have two games this week, but both are against strong playoff teams. This game is worth watching to see the matchup between Westbrook and Clippers point guard Chris Paul. While Oklahoma City sits atop the league, the Clippers are locked into a battle with the Rockets and Trail Blazers to gain home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Monday, February 24
Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers, 7 p.m. ET, on NBA League Pass
These teams entered the home stretch of the season with the two worst records in the NBA. The trade deadline could result in them being even worse. You never know what you might see in a game like this.
Dallas Mavericks at New York Knicks, 7:30 p.m. ET, on NBA TV
New York desperately wants to move into a playoff spot, and Dallas is trying to hold on to the spot it would hold in the playoffs today. Both are led by All-Star forwards in the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki and the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony. The outcome could be determined by the players around them.
Tuesday, February 25
You can vote for one of the four matchups offered for the NBA TV Fan Night game this week: Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers (7 p.m.), Los Angeles Lakers at Indiana Pacers (7 p.m.), the mystical matchup of Orlando Magic at Washington Wizards (7 p.m.), and Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns (9 p.m.). Go to http://www.nba.com/nbatv/fannight to cast your vote for this week’s game.
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