By Britt Robson
February 08, 2011

With about two weeks left before the Feb. 24 trading deadline, the competition for the bottom playoff spots has intensified in both conferences.

The deadline and the postseason chase are linked because teams with no shot at the playoffs are more likely to begin positioning themselves for the future, while teams still in the hunt are apt to hang on to talent they otherwise would consider dealing -- like, say, Andre Iguodala in Philadelphia, Stephen Jackson in Charlotte or even Steve Nash in Phoenix.

In the East, five teams -- the Sixers, Pacers, Bobcats, Bucks and Pistons -- have a shot at securing one of the last two playoff berths. The West race is even more dynamic, a far cry from last season when the eighth seed won 50 games and finished eight games ahead of the ninth-place team.

Among the teams on track to hold one of the last few slots in the West are the Nuggets, who are exploring deals for their superstar; the slumping Jazz, who are 4-9 in their last 13 games; and the Trail Blazers, who have been decimated by injuries but could get some key players back soon. Their closest challengers include the Grizzlies, who have won eight of 11 and possess improved depth for the stretch run; the Suns, who are beginning to jell after a major trade; and the Rockets, who play 17 of their last 29 games at home.

So strap yourselves in for a stirring final two months of the season.

(Stats and records are through Feb. 7.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 1
The Spurs are one of only eight teams in NBA history to win at least 42 of their first 50 games. Six of those other seven went on to win the championship. The exception was 1977-78 Portland, which started 42-8 but then lost Bill Walton -- who was good enough to be named MVP that year despite playing just 58 games -- to a broken foot in February and lost in the Western Conference semifinals. If that history doesn't impress you, consider something more recent: San Antonio is 2-0 this season against the two-time defending champion Lakers after Thursday's last-second victory in Los Angeles.
2 Miami Heat
Last Week: 4
Miami Heat (37-14)
LeBron James' 51-point performance was the top story from Thursday's victory at Orlando, but Erick Dampier's solid defense against Dwight Howard and Co. should be just as much of an encouraging sign for Miami. Dampier is coach Erik Spoelstra's best option against mobile, creative centers like Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut, Denver's Nene and the Lakers' front line. With Joel Anthony undersized and Zydrunas Ilgauskas too slow to defend the pick-and-roll, expect the 35-year-old Dampier to play a crucial role for the Heat in the later rounds of the playoffs.
3 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 2
The Celtics are firmly in midseason mode, rationing their full-blown focus and intensity for when they need to send a message and otherwise hoarding their goods for the postseason. Their relentless approach while waxing the Magic on Sunday was in sharp contrast to the way they let their guard down and were outscored 10-0 to close out a home loss to Dallas two days earlier. The dull edge happened again over longer stints in Monday's loss at Charlotte, where they were casually impulsive instead of clinical on offense and more perfunctory than proud executing their customarily stout half-court defense. Or maybe an old team with no quality backups for Paul Pierce and Kendrick Perkins (thanks to injuries to Marquis Daniels and Shaquille O'Neal) simply ran out of gas on the tail end of a back-to-back after an emotional win.
4 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 5
It's easy to underestimate J.J. Barea. He's not only small but there's also no silkiness in his movements -- he barges and careens his way around the court like a fire hydrant with legs. But Barea finds ways to be productive. He seemingly draws more charges from an opponent's shoo-away arm as he guards the dribble than the rest of the NBA combined. And on offense, there's a reason coach Rick Carlisle regularly goes to Barea in a three-guard rotation during crunch time: He has enough moxie to drain the open jumper or make something happen when opponents focus on his higher-profile teammates, and enough common sense to keep the ball moving to those scorers when he can. Barea is averaging 11.9 points on 54.3 percent shooting from the field and 57.1 percent from three-point range in the last 10 games, a 9-1 run for Dallas.
5 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 3
Chicago Bulls (34-16)
After I gushed over the Bulls in last week's Rankings, a Chicago fan presciently reminded me to be more cautious until they proved they could win consistently on the road. Now they are 11-12 away from the United Center, after being burned by Golden State's transition game and then having Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge toy with Carlos Boozer and Kurt Thomas the way he'd toyed with Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah in the first Bulls-Blazers matchup, on Nov. 1. Games at Utah and New Orleans are next before Chicago returns home from its five-game trip. A loss to the Jazz on Wednesday would be the Bulls' first three-game losing streak of the season.
6 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 6
Ron Artest is an easy scapegoat for the Lakers' occasional offensive woes, but it may be that he needs to be more confident -- and aggressive -- at that end of the court. Artest's usage rate (his participation in offensive plays), shot frequency, assists and turnovers are all career lows, indicating that neither he nor his teammates want him involved. But his efficiency on that limited production could be much higher with better shot selection: His three-point accuracy (37.1 percent) is actually slightly above the league average, and his percentage on shots at the rim is a three-year high. Going hard to the basket instead of jacking up low-percentage mid-range jumpers would help both Artest and his team.
7 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 7
The Thunder have won five of six and three in a row, the last two on the road. Their defense is gradually improving (up to 17th in efficiency), and Kevin Durant is scoring in bunches to move into the bottom of the MVP discussion. But only Toronto and New York allow more points in the paint, which makes it a good time to wonder how much better off Oklahoma City would be with Tyson Chandler right now. You'll recall that in February 2009, the Thunder had a deal in place to acquire Chandler from New Orleans for a pittance -- Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox and the draft rights to DeVon Hardin -- but Oklahoma City rescinded the deal over its team doctor's concerns about Chandler's surgically repaired left big toe. That one hurts, eh Thunder fans?
8 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 10
Atlanta Hawks (33-18)
The Hawks are 25-11 since Thanksgiving, deserved their two All-Stars selections (Al Horford and Joe Johnson) and have an argument for a third in Josh Smith. But they still struggle against elite teams (while slipping less often against the patsies), can be broken down off the dribble with either Mike Bibby or Jamal Crawford "defending" the point and have the albatross of past playoff collapses inevitably awaiting them in the postseason. On the plus side, Horford is one of the NBA's most underrated players (though he could lose that distinction soon as the All-Star appearances pile up). He secured his clutch credentials Friday when, after a scary last-second midair collision with Blake Griffin, Horford got up after a few minutes and nailed the tying and winning free throws. Horford sat out Saturday's win against the Wizards with a bruised back.
9 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 9
Orlando Magic (32-20)
Orlando's M.O. on offense is obvious: Space the floor with three-point shooters and park Dwight Howard under the hoop. The diligence of this spacing strategy results in the Magic's leading the NBA is three-point attempts (25.8 per game) while ranking last in shots taken just inside the arc, from 16-23 feet (14.4), according to the latest statistics from Hoopdata. But here's a troubling statistic for general manager Otis Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy to ponder for the postseason: The teams with the best three-point defense are Atlanta, Miami and Chicago -- three of the Orlando's four most likely playoff foes. And the fourth, Boston, ranks a respectable ninth and also permits the fewest attempts -- it shuts down the perimeter.
10 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 8
What's wrong with the Hornets is no mystery: Center Emeka Okafor and small forward Trevor Ariza are both among the top quarter of NBA players at defending their respective positions, helping mold the identity of what has become a top-five defense. But Okafor has been out four consecutive games with a strained oblique, replaced by journeyman Aaron Gray; and Ariza has missed the last two with a sprained ankle, with rookie Quincy Pondexter subbing in. Not surprisingly, the Hornets have dropped three in a row, capped by Monday's home loss to lowly Minnesota, in which they yielded 104 points (12 over their season average), including 22 second-chance points (again, 12 more than they usually allow).
11 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 12
Utah Jazz (31-22)
After being gashed on a regular basis during last month's six-game losing streak, Utah's defense has stiffened in three of four February games. The exception was Saturday's 121-105 home loss to Oklahoma City in which Russell Westbrook roasted Deron Williams for 33 points and 10 assists in a matchup of All-Star point guards. Lackluster defense has been a disturbing trend for Williams. According to Basketball Value, not counting Monday's game against Sacramento, the Jazz allow 10.22 more points per 100 possessions when Williams is on the court compared to when he sits.
12 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 11
The disgusted smirk on coach George Karl's face as he undid his tie and walked off the court after Monday's home loss to Houston neatly sums up the absurdity of the Nuggets' season. They are second in offensive efficiency and first in scoring but still lag five games behind their 52-game record of the previous two years. Carmelo Anthony, still wanting to be signed to a maximum deal and then traded to the team of his choice, tied his career high with 50 points but didn't register an assist as Houston handed out 27 assists (to Denver's 14) and rode a combined 62 points from Kevin Martin and Luis Scola to victory. Neither Chris Andersen nor Kenyon Martin seems remotely as effective on defense since returning from injury, and Denver can't stop anyone who gets in the paint.
13 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 14
While those who say forward LaMarcus Aldridge has "carried" the Blazers overstated the case to boost his All-Star credentials (Wes Matthews, Marcus Camby, who played most of the first half, and Andre Miller are a pretty staunch supporting cast for a 28-24 team), it is impressive how Aldridge saves his best performances for the best opponents. His career-high 42 points in Monday's victory against Chicago followed his 40 in a win over San Antonio last week, and he's also topped 30 against Miami, Dallas and Chicago again earlier this season. Meanwhile, help is on the way: Camby and Brandon Roy are expected to return to practice Wednesday as they close in on comebacks from knee injuries.
14 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 13
The Grizzlies haven't missed shooting guard O.J. Mayo so far, going 5-2 while he serves his 10-game drug suspension. It helped that coach Lionel Hollins recognized early in the season that he needed a defensive-oriented shooting guard starting between point guard Mike Conley and small forward Rudy Gay on the perimeter, allowing a scorer like Mayo to come off the bench. Rookie Xavier Henry couldn't handle the role, but Memphis is 10-5 since second-year man Sam Young became the starter. Young joins Conley and reserve Tony Allen (one of the best values from last summer's free-agent crop) in forming a ball-hawking trio that puts Memphis among the league leaders in generating points off turnovers, proving that the best offense is a good defense -- and Zach Randolph camped out in the low post for layups and putbacks.
15 New York Knicks
Last Week: 15
Amar'e Stoudemire staged one of the season's more spectacular shooting performances Sunday as the Knicks salvaged a split of back-to-back games with Philadelphia. Without the precision of Steve Nash as a pick-and-roll partner, Stoudemire's attempts at the rim (and percentage of assists on those made layups and dunks) is down even though he's shooting an extra four shots per game. But on Sunday, Stoudemire was simply unstoppable from the perimeter, hitting 10-of-11 from 16-23 feet (league average accuracy from that distance is 39.5 percent). And when the Sixers chased him off the jumper, Amar'e took it inside, going 5-for-6 at the rim, with only one basket assisted and one other a putback. His 41 points powered a team in desperate need of a win after losing nine of 12.
16 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 17
Phoenix Suns (24-25)
The Suns were a .500 team (13-13) before the six-player trade with Orlando, and, after losing a game short-handed while the new players arrived, they are now .500 (11-11) since then. But the upgrade on defense is significant: The Suns held just four opponents under 100 points in those first 26 games, with 89 their lowest allowed. In the last 22 with the players from Orlando (Marcin Gortat, Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus), they've held opponents under 100 eight times and under 80 four times. Gortat, who has been preaching better defense, has helped the Suns climb from last to 28th in points per possession.
17 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 20
I can't condone Aaron Brooks' lack of professionalism in walking off the court in the fourth quarter of Saturday's overtime win against Memphis. But it's easy to understand why he's frustrated over his reduced role and not being offered a contract extension. Last year he was the NBA's Most Improved Player, part of the Rockets' feel-good, 42-win season without Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady or Ron Artest on the roster from the previous season. But when Houston acquired Kevin Martin in the trade with Sacramento at midseason and matched Cleveland's offer sheet to Kyle Lowry last summer, Brooks' departure was all but sealed. A backcourt of Martin and Brooks is too redundant in its offensive skill set and totally wanting on defense. Lowry, a more rugged defender and less of a volume shooter, is a much better fit beside Martin, who is owed $24 million in the two years after this season. And with three straight victories against West rivals with winning records, Houston is beginning to find that right mix of energy and rhythm required to contend for the playoffs without Yao.
18 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 16's John Schumann had a good piece recently on the Sixers' effective small-ball lineup. While the emphasis was on Thaddeus Young at power forward (and he's a legitimate contender for Sixth Man Award runner-up behind Lamar Odom, the heavy favorite once he has enough bench appearances to qualify), Andre Iguodala is the catalyst for much of what has gone right in Philadelphia lately. Injuries made Iguodala one of the few players from the U.S.' gold-medal-winning World Championship team not to make a leap forward earlier this season, but now that he's relatively healthy, the numbers are rolling in during the Sixers' current 6-4 stretch: In those 10 games, the swingman is averaging 16.3 points on 54.2 percent shooting, 4.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists (juiced by his 16 dimes against the Knicks on Friday) and 2.2 blocks in 36.6 minutes. All while drawing the opponents' top wing scorer on defense.
19 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 22
At the risk of repeating myself, when is coach Keith Smart going to start giving more than cursory minutes to rookie Ekpe Udoh? On Monday, phoenix blitzed Golden State 20-6 in the first six minutes and never looked back, in large part because neither David Lee nor Andris Biedrins could guard Channing Frye -- who had a trio of three-pointers in the span -- on the perimeter. Udoh's quickness and defensive savvy were a perfect match for Frye and Phoenix -- he finished plus-13 in 15 minutes, with the next most effective Warrior at plus-1. Yes, it is a tiny sample of one game, and the 317 minutes Udoh has logged this season isn't much bigger. But according to Basketball Value, nobody improves the Warriors' defense (or overall game) more than Udoh when he's on the court.
20 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 23
It's a small sample size, but in the four games under interim coach Frank Vogel, the Pacers are playing even faster than the top-six pace they used under Jim O'Brien and have committed 18.5 turnovers per game compared to 14.9 under their former coach. But they are also undefeated with the reins loosened and cornerstone center Roy Hibbert is happier and more productive. With Dahntay Jones filling in admirably for the injured Brandon Rush as backup shooting guard, and rookie swingman Paul George and second-year forward Tyler Hansbrough continuing to thrive, Indiana's depth is also coming to the fore. And the favorable schedule the Pacers have had since the coaching change will continue: Of their next eight games, only two come against teams playing better than .420 ball (they face Miami twice in that stretch).
21 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 21
New coach Paul Silas keeps making the right moves. After noticing the matchup advantage 6-7 point guard Shaun Livingston had over 5-9 Nate Robinson of the Celtics to begin the second quarter Monday, he went back to it at the first opportunity late in the third period, then had Livingston finish out the game even when Rajon Rondo subbed in for Robinson. With Stephen Jackson gone because of a second-quarter ejection, Silas deployed four bench players and Gerald Wallace during the decisive, 29-20 fourth quarter, producing the five-point victory.
22 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 18
Friday's dramatic loss at Atlanta, in which an awful flagrant foul call on Blake Griffin deprived the Clippers of a final possession and the referees blew a late out-of-bounds play that also cost L.A., obscured Ike Diogu's first double-double since April 2009. The 6-8 forward, a former Warriors lottery pick, signed with the Clippers in late December after missing the entire 2009-2010 season because of microfracture surgery on his left knee and playing a mere 530 minutes combined in the seasons before that. Diogu has made 33-of-49 from the field (67.3 percent) in his last 11 games.
23 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 25
Eight Pistons played at least 18 minutes in Saturday's win over Milwaukee, including Richard Hamilton, back from the flu, or the feud, or whatever you want to call his war of wills with coach John Kuester. But Hamilton's first action in nearly a month resolves nothing, except perhaps the suspense that Detroit might be able to unload his monster contract, which includes about $21.5 million guaranteed in the two seasons after this one. And because Detroit has played better when Hamilton comes off the bench -- or doesn't play at all -- mutual unhappiness between him and his team is likely to continue.
24 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 19
After beating the Nets in Brandon Jennings' first game back from a broken foot, the Bucks have dropped four straight to teams with losing records. The second-year point guard bears some of the blame, shooting 27.7 percent (10-for-36) during the skid. But Jennings is on limited minutes and the bigger problem is that all four opponents shot 50 percent or better, something extremely uncharacteristic of a Scott Skiles team, and a streak largely due to injuries affecting center Andrew Bogut. Milwaukee needs to get some traction playing host to Toronto (ranked 20th in offensive efficiency) and visiting Washington (27th) its next two games.
25 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 24
There's no shame in losing to the Celtics and Spurs, as the Kings did last week. But the Kings led struggling Utah by double digits late in third quarter Monday and blew the game when they couldn't convert outside jumpers against the Jazz's zone and had a tough break when DeMarcus Cousins was called for a fifth foul on a bang-bang play up by six points with six minutes left. (Cousins went to the bench for three and a half minutes and returned with Sacramento down by two.) Playing on a slightly sprained ankle, Jason Thompson couldn't contain Paul Millsap in the fourth quarter as Sacramento was outscored 27-17 in the period in a 107-104 loss.
26 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 29
The Raptors rank last in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage (31.2). But only the Grizzlies average fewer three-point attempts than Toronto's 14.3 per game, so at least the Raptors are minimizing what is a significant flaw in the modern game. It would help if point guard Jose Calderon shot from distance more often -- he makes 41 percent but tries just 2.4 per game and so is averaging only 10.3 points. By contrast, Andrea Bargnani -- the 7-footer who is supposed to compensate for his lack of defense and rebounding with offense -- leads the team in three-point attempts but is making just 32.5 percent and has a below-average true shooting percentage (which takes into account two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws) of 52.1.
27 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 26
For the past year and a half, New Jersey's offense has too frequently stagnated relying on penetration from point guard Devin Harris and mid-range jumpers from center Brook Lopez. Management had the right idea last summer signing Anthony Morrow, a deadly shooter who can spread the floor. He missed five weeks with a strained hamstring and only recently was reinserted into the starting lineup after eight games off the bench. But whenever he plays, logic dictates that plays are run to get him open. Despite leading the team by a wide margin with a 61.1 true shooting percentage, Morrow attempts fewer shots per minute than Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro and Ben Uzoh, let alone Lopez and Harris.
28 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 28
Darko Milicic's lack of progress is among the Wolves' many disappointments. The 25-year-old center stitched together some dominant games in late November, showing his versatile and considerable skill set and making it look like the Wolves had gambled correctly when they gave him a four-year $20 million contract (with the last year not guaranteed) last summer. But Milicic has disappeared as often as he's starred this season, teasing just enough to keep hope alive. Even his most noteworthy accomplishment -- 2.3 blocks per game, third in the NBA -- comes with the caveat that Minnesota is 26th in defensive efficiency and in the bottom third in field-goal defense at the rim.
29 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 27
Nick Young has no conscience. In the last 10 games, the Wizards' aptly titled "shooting guard" has jacked up 185 shots, making 72, or 37.9 percent, well below the league average of 45.8 percent. He is 14-for-44 from three-point range, which is 31.8 percent, again well below the NBA norm of 36.1 percent. He has managed 16 assists -- 1.6 per game, below the league average of 2.1, although his turnovers are right on the average at 1.4. That his teammates include a lauded playmaker and No. 1 pick in rookie John Wall, and a player who is being overpaid for his shooting capabilities in veteran forward Rashard Lewis, is of no consequence to Young's volume shooting. His wild play is one reason why Washington has lost nine of 10 and ranks 27th in offensive efficiency.
30 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 30
For a team that has lost an NBA-record 25 games in a row, the Cavs continue to play with a lot of hope. Unlike with many of the teams just above Cleveland in the standings, fans can empathize with its effort rather than be exasperated by its ineptitude. In each of their last four games, the Cavs have been tied or in the lead in the fourth quarter. Sure, opponents are toying with them to some degree; without injured Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams, Cleveland's mix of talent and experience simply isn't there. But Christian Eyenga can dazzle with his athleticism; Daniel Gibson has taken a big step forward this season; and, after a rough first half of the season, J.J. Hickson is playing like the leader of these gritty underdogs.

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