NBA playoff picture slowly starting to come into focus

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At this point, nothing would really surprise me when the NBA playoffs start in a month.

Well, Indiana winning the NBA title — heck, more than one game — would surprise me. So that is not totally true. But it’s hard to remember a more wide-open year. Every potential contender has enough strengths that you can champion them, enough flaws you can make an argument that dooms them.

Matchups will be key. And those matchups are slowly starting to come into focus. Let’s take a look one month out from the second season.

Eastern Conference

At the top: As of Wednesday morning, Chicago at 48-18 has a half game lead over Boston for the top spot, with Miami lurking 2.5 games back. Like the playoffs themselves, no finishing order here would be a real surprise, but there are some signs that look good in the windy city.

Getting that top seed matters because, as much as Orlando (who is basically locked in at the four seed) is not to be taken lightly, they scare anyone like the three right at the top do. The East’s two/three seed second round matchup will be a killer. Avoid that at all costs.

Chicago’s next 10 games feature only three teams over .500 and no team in the top four in either conference. They could push that slim lead out and hold on to the top spot. Miami is playing well again and after some tough games the rest of this week their schedule lightens up considerably. They are playing better defense and could make a real run at Boston in the two slot and even the top spot. Boston has a couple tough road trips ahead, they need to get their edge back or slipping to the three seed is not out of question.

Two games to watch: Boston at Chicago April 7, then Boston at the Heat April 10. Those could be big.

The East’s middle and bottom: The middle of the East looks pretty set. Look for another Orlando vs. Atlanta playoff series, although this time in the first round as the four and five seeds (the Magic swept that series last year). Philadelphia could catch New York for the six seed, either way the Sixers are a team the top teams are watching. Philly likely will not beat but will push whoever they face in the first round. They will not be an easy out.

The eight seed? Whichever team sucks the least amongst Indiana (currently in that slot), Charlotte (half a game back) and Milwaukee (2.5 back and fading). That team will have the honor of getting swept out in the first round. Indiana helped its cause with a couple wins over the Knicks and has the softest schedule from here on out. But it’s about sucking the least among these three.

Western Conference

At the top: Your San Antonio Spurs are the top seed and nobody is catching them. Whether their defense finds its way back is a question for another day, but San Antonio will have home court advantage for every round it plays in the playoffs.

The Lakers/Mavericks two/three seed battle in the West is more interesting. Currently the Lakers are the two seed by half a game over Dallas and Los Angeles may be playing the best ball in the West over the past couple weeks. That includes a thumping of the Mavs. That win raises this question: Does Dallas need home court to beat the Lakers in the second round? If so, they need to make a push now.

Oklahoma City is likely your four seed (unless they falter and Denver stays red hot). With Kendrick Perkins in the paint and a year of playoff experience, can they knock off the Spurs in the second round? That may be the most interesting question in the playoffs.

The West’s middle and bottom: All that talk above about second round matchups — that could be moot. The teams on the bottom half of the West are playing well right now, they are dangerous. The way Denver is defending and moving the ball makes them a real threat to Oklahoma City or anyone else in the first round. I’ve been told by people from a couple teams they want to avoid current eight-seed Memphis Grizzlies in the first round — that’s a long and dangerous front line with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, plus they have good wing players (with Rudy Gay due back in a week or two). Memphis is dangerous. Even to beat them could take a lot out of a team, who would then face a stiff second round challenge.

As for the other two teams, Portland is playing well and New Orleans brings a good defense and the always-dangerous Chris Paul to the table.

Only 2.5 games separate the five and eight seeds in the West, so predicting an order of finish is like predicting the NCAA tournament. Basically luck matters more than skill. Utah (2 games) and Phoenix (2.5 games) are looking up at the eight seed and want into to the party, but nobody in that top 8 is fading. That’s likely leaves Phoenix, Utah and Houston at the bottom of the lottery.

My prediction: One of the top four seeds in the West will get upset in the first round. It’s too early to say who — matchups and who is hot heading in will be factors — but the West remains deep. There will be no easy outs. Somebody is going to slip up.

Heat re-sign Udonis Haslem

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In 2002, not a single team drafted Udonis Haslem.

For the last 15 years, the Heat haven’t been able to quit him.

Heat:

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Haslem isn’t receiving another $4 million windfall like he got last year. He’ll earn $2,328,652 – $1,471,382 paid by the Heat and $857,270 covered by the league (as is done on one-year minimum deals for veterans). An NBA contract, even for the minimum, might be enough of a reward at this point.

To whatever extent Haslem still has a position – he has played just 390 minutes in the last two years – he’s probably a center. The Heat have Hassan Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo and maybe A.J. Hammons ahead of him. But this isn’t about getting the 37-year-old Haslem on the court, at least not beyond rare spot minutes, where can still be useful as a defender and rebounder.

The Heat want Haslem’s toughness and veteran leadership. He reinforces their culture, and that might be worth a roster spot.

Report: Bulls, agent discussed Derrick Rose returning to Chicago

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Derrick Rose meeting with the Clippers barely registered. He has to meet with the Bucks twice before most noticed.

But it seems Rose and his agent, B.J. Armstrong, have finally figured out how to drum up attention – leak interest from more prominent teams like the LeBron James-led, championship-contending Cavaliers and big-market, widely followed Lakers.

What team could generate even more buzz?

The Bulls!

Sam Amick of USA Today:

If the talks went beyond Armstrong asking the Bulls whether they would sign Rose and the Bulls declining, I’d be surprised.

There’s probably a part of Rose that wants to return to his native Chicago, but it seems his former team has long moved on.

Report: Derrick Rose meeting with Lakers

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Derrick Rose is suddenly in demand – once the market was set at a minimum salary or so.

Not only are the Cavaliers pursuing the former MVP/overhyped role player, so are the Lakers.

ESPN:

Rose is also meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday, sources told ESPN’s Chris Haynes and Ramona Shelburne. The Lakers are trying to entice Rose to sign with them, suggesting they can offer more playing time and money in a better environment after Rose’s tumultuous season in New York, sources said.

Rose’s tumultuous season was due in part to Rose. No matter where he signs, he can’t escape himself. And Los Angeles is even further from his native Chicago.

But the Lakers can offer more money. They still have the $4,328,000 room exception. Rose would earn just $2,116,955 on a minimum salary from Cleveland, and the Cavs can bump that offer to only about $2.5 million. (That’d come with exponential additional costs, so they probably wouldn’t do that, anyway.)

The Lakers can also offer a larger role. Lonzo Ball can’t play every minute at point guard, and Rose would fill in the rest. They’ll likely add a point guard, Rose or not. The Cavaliers might be set with Kyrie Irving, Jose Calderon and Kay Felder if they don’t get Rose.

I’m not sure how Rose would work as a veteran mentor, especially on a one-year contract as he eyes a bigger payday next summer. But – say whatever else you want about him, and there’s plenty to say – Rose has remained impressively focused on basketball amid untold chaos. Ball – with outsized attention given LaVar and his media market – can probably relate.

Rockets re-signing Bobby Brown, Troy Williams

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James Harden spearheaded the Rockets’ recruitment of Chris Paul, but the MVP runner-up didn’t work alone.

Paul’s former New Orleans teammates Trevor Ariza and Bobby Brown added appeal.

So, unsurprisingly, with Paul in a contract year, Houston is re-signing Brown. The Rockets are also re-signing Troy Williams.

Alykhan Bijani‏ of ESPN Houston:

Williams’ agency:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Brown is an undersized gunner who’s not nearly efficient enough to compensate for his defensive deficiencies, and he turns 33 before the season. But if he helps convince Paul to re-sign, it would be well worth keeping Brown on the roster all year.

The 22-year-old Williams, who went undrafted last year, is the far more intriguing player. A 6-foot-7 forward, he has the athleticism to stick in the NBA. His 3-point shot needs major development – though not quite as much if he becomes more adept at being a small-ball four, an easier task in Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo system.