5-on-5: Battles for playoff positioning

Five ESPN.com writers tackle five of the biggest questions involving the playoffs

Originally Published: April 5, 2011
ESPN.com

KobeNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Lakers' path to a threepeat would be a lot tougher if they have to face the Nuggets down the road.

In today's 5-on-5, our roundtable takes a closer look at some of the more interesting teams jockeying for playoff positioning.

Check it out and come back to ESPN.com for more 5-on-5.

1. Who would be the toughest underdog playoff opponent for the Lakers?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: The Nuggets.

Seventeen games in, the post-Carmelo Anthony trade Nuggets have played like, and just might be, an elite team -- as the Lakers learned Sunday.

Brian Robb, Celtics Hub: The Oklahoma City Thunder.

With the rise of Russell Westbrook and the addition of a paint anchor in Kendrick Perkins, this is a team to be reckoned with by the defending champs. The Thunder have been constructed to compete well with L.A. now and for years to come.

Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: The Memphis Grizzlies.

They already have beaten the Lakers twice this season and possess a pair of Kobe stoppers in Tony Allen and Shane Battier. Combine those wings with a strong interior presence that won't be bullied, and you have a team the Lakers should not want to face in the first round.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: I have to choose? Besides the Hornets, every lower-seeded team presents a unique challenge to the Lakers.

If forced to pick just one, I'd choose Denver (and that's not just an overreaction to Sunday's game). The Nuggets have size, toughness, speed, shooting and depth. Add a very good coach, and that's a combination of factors that can attack the Lakers' weaknesses.

Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Surprised to say this, but it's the Nuggets.

Denver's newness is an unknown that's a little scary and tougher to prepare for. Plus, George Karl has the Nuggets playing defense; they must feel overlooked; and that national TV win will give them confidence against the Lakers. Oklahoma City can't match L.A.'s bigs.


2. Tougher playoff opponent for Celtics: 76ers or Knicks?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: The 76ers.

These two teams have both been singing the tired hymn that it can take time for a roster to get it. Maybe the 76ers -- who recently beat the Spurs, Celtics and Bulls -- did get it and are now really the team that Doug Collins has been building.

For the Knicks, on the other hand, two big names and one big promise to play better aren't nearly enough to scare the Celtics.

Brian Robb, Celtics Hub: The 76ers.

Athletic teams have given Boston fits for the past couple of years, and this squad certainly fits the bill. With a balanced starting lineup, a top-10 defense and an explosive bench, the Sixers have the pieces to hang with Boston or Miami in the first round, as long as Lou Williams recovers from his hamstring injury in time.

Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: The Knicks, because they are such a wild card.

Their defense is bad enough for them to get swept, but they feature a pair of stars good enough to take over a series on their own. Plus, 3-point shooting increases the variability in a team's performance, and only Orlando takes more 3s than New York.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: The Knicks.

With the Celtics' reliance on small lineups, the Knicks' lack of size isn't as big a concern. If the Knicks rely less on isolation and more on their pick-and-roll sets, they can collapse the Celtics' defense to get Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire the ball in space where they excel. Plus, I'm not sold on an inexperienced 76ers team testing the Celtics.

Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: The Sixers.

The Knicks are different, but they haven't changed. If that makes sense. They will be fine long-term, but a few big Carmelo games aren't enough to convince me that their defense -- the root cause of that previous tailspin -- has been fixed.


3. Cool or uncool: Pacers in playoffs with a projected 37-45 record?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Uncool, unless you're someone who just loves conferences (the title "conference champion," for instance).

Without doing away with that, it's hard to imagine a fix.

Brian Robb, Celtics Hub: Cool.

The inclusion of a sub-.500 team in the Eastern Conference has almost been a rite of passage in the past decade. It's not exactly fair, but it's been well-known that there is an imbalance of quality teams between conferences. I have no problem with the league's addressing that inequity, but for now, the Pacers shouldn't be penalized because of it.

Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: Uncool.

You should have to win at least half your games to earn an invitation to the postseason. The Pacers don't deserve to reach the playoffs, and nobody wants to see a losing team like Indiana get slaughtered in the first round by Chicago.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: Uncool.

A potential record of eight games under .500 isn't deserving of a playoff berth even if the rules dictate that's the case. It's rewarding below-average play while more deserving teams in the Western Conference end up with a low lottery pick that likely won't even help their team next season. None of this seems right to me.

Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Cool for Pacers fans; uncool for basketball fans.

The Indiana franchise desperately needs this playoff berth, but it's a lame-duck roster with perhaps a lame-duck coach and a lame-duck GM. It will be a lame series. Tyler Hansbrough's facial expressions will be entertaining, at the very least.


4. Cool or uncool: Rockets likely out of playoffs with 45 or so wins?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Uncool.

But it's not all bad for the Rockets, who have the NBA's 14th-best record and a lottery pick on the way. If they luck into the top three, people are going to freak out.

Also, see how hard it is for the midlevel teams in the weaker conference to catch up? They luck into unearned playoff spots but consistently draft lower.

Brian Robb, Celtics Hub: Cool.

The run the Rockets have made since the trade deadline has been enthralling, but Houston's likely absence from the postseason is far from a major playoff injustice. The Golden State Warriors were left out with 48 wins in 2007-08. The Western Conference is competitive, and it should come as no surprise for Houston fans that 45 wins isn't enough.

Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: Cool.

The West's No. 8 seed has won 50 games two of the past three seasons and won 48 the other season. With so many competitive teams in the West, we knew it would take about that many victories this season as well. The Rockets have played great since the break, but they have only themselves to blame for starting 3-10.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: Uncool.

Even putting aside that they'd compete for the No. 6 seed in the East with that record, I still focus on the idea that they've scrapped their way through another injury-riddled season to have another strong campaign, but all they'll have to show for it is a mid-teens pick in this year's draft. Tell me how any of that is fair.

Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: They're in last place in their division. I'm cool with it.

I get the argument, but I'm not going to shed tears for a team that finished in the basement, even if divisions aren't all that meaningful anymore.


5. Cool or uncool: Suns out of playoffs with better record than Pacers?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Uncool to miss the thrilling Steve Nash and his Suns facing their nemesis Spurs or Lakers once again ... but no biggie, as the Suns would have lost quietly to either.

Last season's conference finalists can blame their own front-office decisions, more than any NBA rule, for their absence.

Brian Robb, Celtics Hub: Cool.

The uncool label from this question belongs to Suns owner Robert Sarver, who ripped away any chance the Suns had at contending this season by deconstructing his Western Conference finalists with a bevy of questionable moves. Here's hoping Steve Nash and Grant Hill are given the chance to win an elusive title somewhere else next season.

Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: Uncool.

It's unfortunate that an era marred by poor postseason luck and selling draft picks will end without even one final stand at the Alamo, even though it would have resulted in an inevitable first-round defeat. But that's what happens when you try to replace an All-Star power forward with spare parts.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: Cool.

Although I love Steve Nash and Grant Hill, their front office's bad decision-making finally caught up with them. They broke up last season's conference finals team by letting Amare walk over contract issues, but then committed big money to Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress. They lacked foresight and vision. They've made their bed, and they must lie in it.

Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: They play in the worst division in basketball not named the Central, and they couldn't even go .500. I'm cool with it.

Sorry, Steve. Silver lining: Your face won't get bloodied this year. Go Vancouver Whitecaps, I guess, eh?

Henry Abbott is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Brian Robb, Michael Schwartz, Darius Soriano and Jared Wade are writers for the TrueHoop Network.