Well, the NBA playoff picture is finally starting to become clear.
Yes, I did say NBA, not NFL. Why do you ask?
The NBA preseason is about at the quarter pole, with most teams having played 20 or 21 of their 82 games, and, as usual, we have a pretty good idea who's going to make the playoffs and who isn't, and the next four months, 60 games, will determine which of a handful of mediocre teams will grab the last few spots.
In the Western Conference, where the action is, the Suns, Sonics, Spurs, Kings, Timberwolves and Mavericks are going to make it. Now, I know what some of you are thinking. "The Suns and Sonics? They're flashes in the pan. They'll fade."
But no, they almost certainly won't, and even if they do, they'll probably still make the playoffs. The Suns are 18-3, the Sonics 18-4. The last playoff team in the West this year will probably have to win in the high 40s. Let's say 48, which is one more than the current eighth-place team, the Nuggets, are on pace to win. So the Suns could go 30-31 and, the Sonics 30-30, and they'd at least be in good shape for that last spot.
John Hollinger, proprietor of the great basketball Web site Alleyoop.com, looked at the history of teams that have gotten off to such fast starts in a piece for SI.com earlier this week. Of the 32 teams that have ever started 17-3, the two teams' record at the time of Hollinger's writing, none had failed to make the playoffs. Only one of them -- the 1948-49 Washington Capitals -- failed to win 56 games, or the prorated equivalent in a shorter season.
No one's more surprised by the Sonics than this column, whose entire assessment of them in its NBA preview read thusly: "The Trail Blazers are Zach Randolph, Darius Miles and a bunch of unhappy guys. Oh, they got Nick Van Exel this offseason. He always cheers everyone up. Could be worse, though. They could be the Sonics."
I gave a lukewarm endorsement to the Suns, though.
So anyway, yes, anything can happen, even if it hasn't ever happened before. And in fact any one of the already-in teams could stumble terribly, most likely because of a disastrous injury, such as Kevin Garnett going down in Minnesota. But that caveat aside, we know the Suns, Sonics, Spurs, Kings, T-Wolves and Mavs are going to be printing, and using playoff tickets.
Who won't have to worry about playoff tickets? The Hornets and Warriors. I'd add the Grizzlies, but let's wait and see how they respond to new coach Mike Fratello. They're 4-3 so far after a 5-11 start.
So that leaves the Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Rockets and maybe the Grizzlies playing 60 games to see which of them will get the last two playoff spots and a 93 percent chance of losing in the first round.
In the East, the Heat, Wizards, Cavaliers and Magic are looking like playoff teams, which sounds great considering that all four of them have been plug awful within the last two years.
Before we get too excited, consider that the Cavs, who would be the No. 2 seed if the season ended today, would be the seventh seed in the West, just one game ahead of the best non-qualifier. Still, it's nice, and all this new blood may be a step toward balancing the power back eastward a bit over the next few years.
The Pacers and Pistons are looking a little bubblish, but they'll probably be all right. Indiana's scuffling since the suspensions stemming from the brawl in Detroit last month, losing eight of 12, but they only have 13 games to go until Jermaine O'Neal returns, 18 to go until Stephen Jackson comes back. Even if they go, say, 5-13 until then, which I think is pessimistic, I doubt they'll have much trouble winning 25 or 30 games in the second half and easily qualifying.
Detroit's been banged up and kind of desultory at times, but you have to figure the defending champs will put it together at least enough to easily make the playoffs.
Want to schedule a fishing trip for the last week of April? No problem if you play for the Hawks, Bulls, Bobcats and, now that they've dumped seven straight, let's say the Raptors. Let's throw in the Nets too. New Jersey is percentage points ahead of the Bucks, .333 to .316, but I can't help thinking Milwaukee, which keeps losing close ones, is going to come around some.
So, assuming the Pacers and Pistons make it, that leaves the Knicks, Celtics, 76ers and maybe the Bucks battling for the last two playoff spots and a 93 percent chance of losing in the first round. Actually, the 7 and 8 seeds in the East might have a better-than-normal chance in the first round of the playoffs because the No. 2, as it stands now, would be weaker than the historical norm. Remember, it's Cleveland at the moment.
But if the Bucks don't get on track, we could be talking about 60 games to eliminate one team from among New York, Boston and Philly. Whichever of those three wins the Atlantic will be the No. 3 seed.
So for the next four months we'll be keeping our eyes on the 11 teams that make up the NBA's lower middle class. The best of them, the Lakers and Nuggets, are 12-9. The worst, the Bucks, are 6-13. And of course one or two teams might fall out of the "surely in" or "no way" categories.
But we sure have a lot of basketball ahead of us that won't mean much. That explains why so much of it is so dull. The good news is that the NHL is sparing us the same thing on the ice at the moment.
More good news: The bowl season is underway! On Tuesday -- a traditional night for college football -- Southern Miss beat North Texas 31-10 in the Compasses 'R' Us New Orleans Bowl. It's going to be a long six days before we can all enjoy the Champs Sports Bowl -- smart move not giving the bowl an actual name so people like me can ignore the sponsor. If you know what city Syracuse and Georgia Tech will be playing that bowl game in without looking it up, you're ahead of me.
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