By Steve Kerr, Yahoo! Sports
April 17, 2006
After a season-long dominance of the NBA, it's no secret that Detroit is the best team in the league. Sitting at the top of the final rankings, the Pistons enter the playoffs with good health, a boatload of confidence and a deep, talented squad. And while their first-round opponent hasn't been determined yet – they could play any one of four teams – you can bet that the entire league is wary of Detroit.
In fact, with all 16 playoff spots filled up, the only drama that will unfold in the final days of the NBA's regular season will come from Milwaukee, Chicago, Indiana and Washington. The four clubs are just one game apart in the Eastern Conference, and each will go all out to try to avoid the dreaded eighth seed and a quick exit at the hands of the powerful Pistons.
Meanwhile in the West, San Antonio can clinch the No. 1 seed with a win in its last two games, or a Dallas loss. But as the Spurs stumble toward the finish line, it's apparent that the conference is more up in the air than it has been for quite a while. With the Kings and Lakers surging and Denver struggling as the third seed, there could be an upset or two as the West playoffs progress.
Here's a look at the final rankings (records and statistics are through April 16):
1. Detroit Pistons (64-16, Last ranking: 1) – The Pistons have exactly what they wanted when the season began: home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
2. San Antonio Spurs (61-19, Last ranking: 2) – The Spurs' injuries, most notably to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, have this team limping into the playoffs, literally and figuratively. But they're still the Spurs, which means they're the favorites in the West.
3. Dallas Mavericks (60-21, Last ranking: 4) – The Mavericks' reward for the third-best record in the league? Most likely a No. 4 seed and a first-round matchup with either the Grizzlies or the Clippers. Thanks a lot.
4. Phoenix Suns (52-28, Last ranking: 5) – Wins over Sacramento and Dallas reestablished the Suns' confidence heading into the postseason.
5. New Jersey Nets (49-31, Last ranking: 3) – Which team will show up in the playoffs for the Nets: Jekyll or Hyde? After winning 14 straight, New Jersey lost three of four, including a 20-point pasting by the Sixers.
6. Miami Heat (52-28, Last ranking: 6) – The Heat's hopes may rest on the status of the injured Alonzo Mourning. Without him, Miami's defense is non-existent.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers (48-32, Last ranking: 7) – The entire city heaved a sigh of relief after learning LeBron James' ankle injury wasn't serious. Clevelanders will enjoy seeing their team back in the playoffs for the first time since 1998.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (47-33, Last ranking: 9) – The Grizzlies have quietly had a phenomenal season, and Pau Gasol has quietly become dominant.
9. Los Angeles Clippers (46-34, Last ranking: 8) – With a powerful inside game and a clutch shooter in Sam Cassell, the Clips could do some damage in the playoffs.
10. Sacramento Kings (43-38, Last ranking: 11) – The Kings shellacked the Nuggets in Denver on Saturday and showed San Antonio (or Phoenix) that they'll be a tough out in the first round.
11. Denver Nuggets (44-36, Last ranking: 10) – The Nuggets will go on the road to start the playoffs, thanks to a sloppy finish to the season.
12. Los Angeles Lakers (44-37, Last ranking: 13) – Kobe Bryant is back in the playoffs, thank goodness. Last year, the postseason wasn't the same without him.
13. Utah Jazz (40-40, Last ranking: 14) – Give Jerry Sloan a healthy roster next season and he'll have the Jazz back in the playoffs.
14. Chicago Bulls (39-41, Last ranking: 17) – Give credit to Scott Skiles and the Bulls. They climbed a huge hill to get into the playoffs for the second straight season.
15. Milwaukee Bucks (39-41, Last ranking: 16) – Michael Redd to the rescue: Just when it looked like the Bucks were in trouble, he comes up big and puts his team in the playoffs.
16. Indiana Pacers (39-41, Last ranking: 19) – As bad as the lower half of the Eastern playoff bracket looks, does anyone really want to play the battle-tested Pacers?
17. Washington Wizards (40-40, Last ranking: 12) – A victory over LeBron and the Cavaliers stemmed the tide for the Wizards. They had been reeling.
18. Orlando Magic (36-44, Last ranking: 21) – Dwight Howard's line against Philadelphia on Saturday was sublime: 28 points and 26 rebounds.
19. New Orleans Hornets (38-42, Last ranking: 15) – A gallant effort for the Hornets came up short, but they have reason to be proud. And with Chris Paul running the show, the future looks bright, too.
20. Philadelphia 76ers (37-43, Last ranking: 18) – There are plenty of questions facing the Sixers this summer. At the top of the list is whether or not to trade Allen Iverson.
21. Seattle SuperSonics (34-46, Last ranking: 20) – The season was extremely disappointing for the Sonics, particularly following last season's Northwest Division title. Still, the trade deadline deals for Chris Wilcox and Earl Watson give Seattle fans hope for next year.
22. Golden State Warriors (33-47, Last ranking: 25) – The Warriors might have the best fans in the NBA. They come out in droves and cheer like crazy, even for meaningless late-season games. Just think if they had something to cheer about.
23. Houston Rockets (33-47, Last ranking: 22) – Two questions face the Rockets in the offseason: Can Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady ever stay healthy at the same time, and can management put the right group of teammates around them?
24. Boston Celtics (32-48, Last ranking: 25) – Paul Pierce turned the corner this season and became a complete basketball player. Can the young corps around him develop quickly enough to contend next season?
25. Minnesota Timberwolves (33-48, Last ranking: 24) – The Kevin Garnett sweepstakes starts soon, assuming the Wolves want to move him, that is. They'll find plenty of takers, but can anyone offer a worthy package in return?
26. Toronto Raptors (27-53, Last ranking: 27) – A dismal record may be a little deceiving because the Raptors have some good young talent. Now it's up to Bryan Colangelo to make the right moves to get them moving forward.
27. Atlanta Hawks (25-55, Last ranking: 26) – The Hawks will be in the market for a point guard this summer, and Brevin Knight makes a lot of sense. Pure speculation on my part, but as a member of the media, I specialize in nonfactual guesswork.
28. Charlotte Bobcats (24-56, Last ranking: 29) – The Bobcats didn't win much, but they sure competed – right through the final stages of the season. Give Bernie Bickerstaff and his team some credit.
29. New York Knicks (22-58, Last ranking: 28) – Mercifully, it's over. The Knicks' season was so bad that Larry Brown couldn't bear to watch it at the end. Will he be able to bear watching from the sidelines next season?
30. Portland Trail Blazers (21-59, Last ranking: 30) – The Blazers will have one of the top picks in the draft this summer. Thankfully, the league won't allow them to pick a high school player anymore, so perhaps they'll find someone with a little experience.
Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Tuesday, Apr 18, 2006 2:59 am, EDT
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