The postseason is less than a month away. Which teams have what it takes? Our panel weighs in on five key questions.
1. Bigger loss: Kevin Garnett (2 weeks) or Metta World Peace (6 weeks)?
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Metta World Peace. Garnett is the far more important player. He's Boston's linchpin, and the Celtics have a lot at stake. The Celtics are both among the biggest threats to the Heat in the East and a team that could absolutely bomb out in the first round, especially if they get a bad draw. But I'm assuming the C's will face the Pacers almost no matter what, while the Lakers still need to make the postseason, and need all the healthy bodies they can get.
Ian Levy, The Two-Man Game: World Peace. While the Celtics are locked in a battle with Milwaukee to avoid a first-round matchup with the Heat, the Lakers are still trying to actually lock down a playoff berth. Forget about specific effects on L.A.'s already suspect defense and look at the flotsam filling seats at the end of their bench. There's not a replacement-level contribution to be found. This is a HUGE problem for the Lakers.
Brian Robb, Celtics Hub: World Peace. While Garnett is a more crucial player on his team, the Celtics have just about wrapped up a playoff spot. Meanwhile, the Lakers are fighting for their playoff lives and lack any helpful depth at the small forward spot. Losing World Peace might be the injury that keeps them out of the postseason.
Tom Sunnergren, Hoop76: World Peace. The instinct here is to tab KG, but Metta, surprisingly, might have been more crucial to his team's success this season. The Lakers have been 10.7 points better per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, while Garnett has had a much more modest impact on the Celtics. Regardless of the plus/minus stats though, the relative length of Metta's absence makes the Lakers the biggest loser here.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: World Peace. The Celtics are at least firmly in the playoffs. The Lakers are hanging on by a thread. And without World Peace, a potential first-round matchup with the Thunder would be unfortunate, seeing as World Peace is the only Laker with a shred of a chance of containing Kevin Durant.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Clippers can win a title with Vinny Del Negro.
Abbott: Fact. Who knows how much better they could be. But the reason they're barely contenders has a lot more to do with the Heat, Thunder and Spurs.
Levy: Fact. Of course. Is it likely? Of course not. Del Negro has a handful of incredibly effective lineups he can ride, taking the pressure off for nightly rotation-tinkering. Ultimately, the complexity of their game plan will have a lot less to do with their success than the ability of the players to carry it out.
Robb: Fiction. Del Negro has come a long way since his Chicago coaching days, but he still isn't close to the top tier of NBA coaches. Given the amount of talent other top teams have in the Western Conference, I don't think Del Negro has the ability to enable the Clippers' roster to overcome its defensive flaws and win a title.
Sunnergren: Fact. Why not? While VDN isn't and likely will never be a great coach, the NBA is a players' game. The Clips' title hopes hinge much more on Blake Griffin's development, Chris Paul's continued dominance and some unthinkable calamity simultaneously striking the Heat and Thunder than they do on Del Negro figuring out how to shape a team as well as he does his hair.
Young: Fact. Coaches are important, absolutely. But overstating the influence of one on a title run is often one of the biggest mistakes people make. If LeBron doesn't become the Terminator in Game 6 against Boston, Erik Spoelstra might've been fired. Just like players, there are different classes of coaches, but Del Negro won't be the thing holding back the Clips from winning it all.
3. Which team in the East has the best shot at unseating the Heat?
Abbott: The Pacers, I say, guessing for about the third year in a row that time will catch the Celtics. I've always been wrong before.
Levy: The Pacers. They have all the right pieces to build the still-theoretical Heat-stifling defense and sustain it for a series. Indiana's offense is still a nightly question mark, but their overconfidence and physicality are the perfect compensation strategy. The Heat would still be an overwhelming favorite, but the Pacers can challenge in more areas than any other team in the East.
Robb: Pacers. They play defense as well as anyone in the league and have a capable defender for LeBron in Paul George. With a bunch of savvy veterans on the offensive end, they have as good of a shot as anyone in the East, if they can get healthy.
Sunnergren: The Knicks. The (long shot) case for Gotham: New York shoots the 3-pointer often and well, which poses an especially thorny problem for the Heat. Misses from beyond the arc lead to offensive rebounds with unusual regularity, and the Heat are already in the bottom third of the association in defensive rebounding rate. So second-chance points and triples could sink the champs. It already has worked for the Knicks twice this season.
Young: The Pacers. The Heat aren't nearly as vulnerable now as they looked when the Pacers ripped them up in Indiana almost two months ago, but in a seven-game series, they could potentially make things difficult for Miami. The Pacers match up reasonably well and can at least expose a weakness with their interior size.
4. Lakers, Jazz or Mavs: Which team(s) will make the playoffs?
Abbott: Lakers. They have a slender lead. Mavericks are making it interesting, and Jazz will come around. But don't we still have to assume Lakers can play better?
Levy: The Mavericks! It's a homer pick, but over their past 10 they've outscored the opposition by an average of 6.3 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers are mulling the possibility of playing 4-on-5 the rest of the season and the Jazz are working on their Charlotte Bobcats impersonation. Meanwhile Dirk [Nowitzki] is playing his best basketball of the season and the .500 beards are looking glorious.
Robb: Mavericks. With a full complement of healthy players on hand for what seems like the first time all season, the Mavericks are peaking at the right time. They'll squeak by the short-handed Lakers for the eighth seed behind the play of Dirk Nowitzki.
Sunnergren: Lakers. The Lakers and Mavericks' race for the final playoff spot may well go down to the wire, but Kobe [Bryant's] group has two strong advantages: L.A. has 1½ games on Dallas in the standings, and the lone remaining matchup of the two titans of yesteryear comes at Staples.
Young: Lakers. This is a terrible reason, but I think the Lakers make it simply because I can't picture Kobe and that roster sitting out the playoffs. It's beyond comprehension to me right now. I mean, think about it: no Kobe in the postseason? What?
5. Who will be the biggest wild card of the 2013 postseason?
Abbott: Derrick Rose is by far the biggest wild card of the 2013 postseason. My guess is that the Bulls' defeat of the Heat did a lot to maximize his chance of returning.
Levy: Danny Granger. Looking at the Western Conference playoff picture reveals questions about execution and the imposition of will, without a lot of surprises lurking. Miami already has answered most of the questions in the East, but if Granger can get healthy, and be effective, it could subtly tip the balance of a Heat-Pacers series to the point where the outcome is legitimately in doubt.
Robb: Health. Staying healthy is always a major key in the playoffs, but with so many key players on contenders dealing with injuries already, it's a bigger factor than ever. The teams that can avoid the injury bug the rest of the way will be the toughest to knock off this postseason.
Sunnergren: The Denver Nuggets. The ostensibly starless, fast-breaking Nuggets are an odd duckling among the juggernauts. But in these past five weeks, the team has stretched our conception of what a contending basketball team looks like. Can the run continue in the postseason? I don't know, but I can't wait to find out.
Young: Ty Lawson. It seems that we all have a better grip on how dangerous the Nuggets really are and the "they need a superstar" talk is certainly fading. But let's face it: In a seven-game series, there will be moments, plural, where the Nuggets have to have someone carry them. And Lawson seems to be the most likely candidate to do it.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Henry Abbott is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Ian Levy, Brian Robb, Tom Sunnergren, and Royce Young contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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