We're nearing the stretch drive in the Association and the Five-Man Weave breaks down some of the top storylines in the NBA as teams battle it out for playoff positioning.
With the way Miami is rolling can anyone threaten them for the title?
Josh Lewenberg: Certainly not in the East. Their first and only true test will come in June, when they'll likely face one of two Western Conference powers capable of giving them a run for their money. OKC has the talent to matchup and although the Thunder haven't faired well against Miami this season, they appear to have a more mature, playoff-ready demeanor about them. The Spurs are a wild card due to the health of Tony Parker. The reigning champs will be challenged in the finals, but ultimately it may not matter if LeBron and co. continue on their seemingly unstoppable path of destruction.
Duane Watson: If you posed this question 16 games ago, my answer would still be the same. No one can stop them and now they're playing with focus and LeBron James has taken his game to another level. I just hope at least they make it interesting instead of crushing everyone like cockroaches under their heel.
Mitch Ward: My pre-season pick to win the title was Oklahoma City. I've stood by that all season and I'm sticking by it now. That said, I've been known to be wrong and the Miami Heat are a terrifying force of nature.
Tim Chisholm: There is always someone. Oklahoma City, San Antonio, even the LA Clippers could mount a serious threat if they catch fire at the right time. Momentum is a huge X-Factor in the playoffs. Look at Boston in 2010 or Dallas in 2011 - neither team looked like much in March, but they caught fire when it counted. It could easily happen again this year.
Will Strickland: Of course there is someone who can threaten the Heat for the title: The Heat. We also have The Usual Suspects: OKC, San Antonio, New York and Indiana. But don't expect a veteran team with two of the Top 10 players in the world in LBJ and a very healthy D-Wade to fold easy. Add a very good and versatile big in Bosh, underrated big game performer in Almario Vernard Chalmers, one of the best "Glue Guys" in the NBA in Shane Battier and an excellent mid-season redemption pickup in The Birdman, Chris Andersen and the "threat", while it "exists", lessens dramatically.
2. Can the Spurs maintain the top seed in the West without Tony Parker
Lewenberg: They can and probably will. Logically they should be toast. However, I've been burned betting against Coach Pop and the Spurs one too many times. They've won five of six without Parker this season (the only loss came in that infamous Thursday night fine-inducing thriller with the Heat… a game they nearly won without their three best players). They're also 8-2 without Duncan. Fact is, they're way too well coached/built/prepared to let an injury – even one this significant – detour them. Although it's worth noting that the remainder of their schedule is daunting.
Watson: No, but San Antonio doesn't need a top pick to prove their effectiveness in the post-season. Their biggest concern is maintaining their health and losing Parker, who was having a great season for them, doesn't hurt them, but they lose a step. In a tight Western Conference, that means everything.
Ward: Is there really any point in betting against the Spurs? They're just going to prove you wrong if you do. They've been "too old" for years now, but that doesn't seem to matter. They just keep winning and they'll continue to do so while Tony Parker is sidelined.
Chisholm: The Spurs are as well-oiled a machine as exists in pro sports, but Gregg Popovich knows that the regular season is just a tune-up. Can they stay on top? Sure, but it's far from a priority. If playing their brand of ball sans Parker keeps them there, great. If not, they aren't going to shift gears just for a number-one seed.
Strickland: Yes. They've dealt with a myriad of injuries to key players this season and have kept it moving. No Manu? No Problemo! No Tim Duncan? No Prob! No Tony Parker for a month in the grossly unnoticed MVP-esque and best season of his career? Pas De Probleme! Gregg Popovich's system and his team's belief in said system, along with the metronomic excellence of Tim Duncan, has the Spurs believing title time again in an odd numbered year like in 1999, 2003, 2005 and2007.
3. If Derrick Rose returns can the Bulls reach the Eastern Finals?
Lewenberg: Not this year. I would have said yes a month ago, when it seemed like Rose's return was just around the corner. Alas, it's now March and he's still "day-to-day". Even when he does get back, I'll be pleasantly surprised if he can perform at a level that's remotely close to 100 per cent. Their defensive prowess should keep them competitive regardless but Indiana, New York and Brooklyn are all better teams… unless Rose has an MVP-caliber impact right away (unlikely).
Watson: No, he has too much of an adjustment to make getting back his comfort and rhythm, never mind meshing with his teammates. A squad like the Pacers, who are a better team, already have an edge of working back their star Danny Granger and he didn't miss as much time as Rose. At their best they're not topping the Heat and he should just wait until next season and come back 100 percent.
Ward: Yes, as long as they don't run into Miami before then. If they finish as the six or seven seed I think Derrick Rose at even 85 percent added to the Bulls stout defence can get them past the likes of the Pacers, Nets or Knicks and into the Eastern Finals. Not because the Bulls are great, but because the rest of the Eastern Conference oustide of Miami isn't either. Rose doesn't have to be the MVP as soon as he comes back, he just needs to be good. IF he comes back.
Chisholm: No. Even if Rose returns (still a big 'if') he'll be well short of the player we remember him as. He had major surgery and has lots of new teammates to get acclimated with if he comes back this year. With Indiana and New York doing their thing, it would take something truly remarkable for Chicago to get through one of them to reach Miami in the East Finals.
Strickland: No... And he won't return this season. The resolve of Coach Thibodeau and the all out passion of Joakim Noah doesn't provide a big enough band-aid to cover the gaping bullet wounds that exist on the 2012-2013 Chicago Bulls roster, with or without Derrick Rose.
Will the Lakers make the playoffs and at whose expense?
Lewenberg: A reluctant yes from me. Sure they have turned their nightmare season around with a record of 11-5 since February 1, but wait… Eight of those wins have come over sub-.500 teams and if you investigate further you'll notice that their porous defence has been even worse over that stretch. They're merely beating up on bad teams but, with a friendly schedule the rest of the way, that should be enough to get them in. Utah has been struggling and with some key pieces banged up, I see the Jazz falling out of the playoff race, presenting L.A. with an opportunity to squeeze in.
Watson: Believe it or not, yes. Kobe Bryant is putting this team on his back, and even with middling play from Dwight Howard, they will get there. Pau Gasol still adds a lot of value to this squad down the stretch and they have enough to catch the Jazz and send them fishing in Utah.
Ward: Yes, although they still haven't put it all together the way I keep waiting for them to. As for who they will overtake I see it being the Jazz or possibly the Warriors. The Jazz have struggled recently and I could see the Warriors going 0-for-4 in important games down the stretch against the Lakers and the Rockets.
Chisholm: I'm gonna go with yes, and if they do make it I see it as much as a result of Utah slipping as LA surging. The Jazz have lost five of their last six and just haven't looked right since the All-Star break. While LA has only been okay of late, they have a lot of gimmes the rest of the way and that should help them close the gap for the eighth seed.
Strickland: Grand Opening... Grand Closing... IF the Lakers make the playoffs, they'd have the unenviable task of facing the Spurs, who they actually match up better with than the OKC Thunder. Durant, Westbrook and The Groinocologist, Serge Ibaka, would run L.A.'s Cardboard Cutout All-Stars ragged in five games tops. Kobe is doing his best to hold up his end of the playoff guarantee, though it looks like it'll be empty calories either way.
Which non-playoff team with 25 or fewer wins has the brightest future?
Lewenberg: Despite the off-season hype and a promising start to the campaign, the Minnesota Timberwolves have had a year to forget. Of course, the basketball gods have done them no favours – they've lost more man-games to injury than any other team in the league. The Brandon Roy experiment failed miserably, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio played just three games together and Coach Adelman has been left to work with makeshift rosters from day one. With the addition of Russians Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved along with the always terrifying Nikola Pekovic down low, this group – if healthy – could be very intriguing next season.
Watson: I picked the Minnesota Timberwolves as a playoff team in the pre-season, but injuries decimated their campaign, even Coach Adelman missed games. They have a great core in Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Alexey Shved, Andrei Kirilenko, J.J. Barea, and some good reserves. They will get something when they unload Derrick Williams in the off-season and may even get a decent draft pick based on their record.
Ward: There are alot of teams currently on the outside looking in with reasons to feel good about the future like Minnesota, Cleveland and New Orleans, but my pick is the Detroit Pistons. Dominant big men are hard to find in the NBA and with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe the Pistons might just have two of them within a few short years. Throw a couple lottery picks in while they develop and Detroit could be a force to be reckoned with a few seasons from now.
Chisholm: Gotta say Cleveland. While Minnesota is tempting, Rubio has looked off since returning this year and no one knows how invested Love is with that organization. The Cavs, meanwhile, have a future superstar in Kyrie Irving and two solid support pieces in Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, and all look poised to grow together in Ohio. With another high pick coming this year and gobs of cap space they are a team to watch going forward.
Strickland: Cleveland Cavaliers. With a budding superstar in Kyrie Irving, a volatile scorer in backcourt mate Dion Waiters, a potential double-double machine in Brampton, Ontario's Tristan Thompson, along with solid contributions from Alonzo Gee, Tyler Zeller and the resurrected Shawn Livingston, I like what this team can become. Throw in the possibility of the Return Of The Prodigal King, LeBron James and... lemme stop right there!
The Five-Man Weave is made up of TSN.ca Raptors blogger Tim Chisholm ( @timpchisholm), TSN Radio 1050 Raptors reporter Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050), Duane Watson (@sweetswatson) and Will Strickland (@WallStrizzle1) from TSN Radio 1050's 1-on-1 with Will and Duane, and TSN.ca NBA Editor Mitch Ward (@jmitchw).