In the spirit of the season, let's imagine for a moment what the NBA's version of March Madness might look like.
Yes, the playoffs are a month away, and there are still several teams on the bubble as they vie for the final spots in each conference. But as the season winds down, it is already apparent who the contenders, pretenders and also-rans are.
So I will be the Craig Littlepage of Yahoo! Sports and unveil my brackets for you here. Please send all complaints and arguments directly to Billy Packer and Jim Nantz.
1. San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs didn't graduate anyone and return all the key components from last year's championship team. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are getting healthy and Tony Parker is one of the best guards in the country. We at the committee like to look at the last 10 games on a team's schedule, and San Antonio is 7-3 over that span.
2. Detroit Pistons – Pistons fans are angry at not getting the one seed, despite Detroit's better record and two wins over San Antonio in the regular season. But the committee wasn't thrilled with the Pistons' recent play, which includes four losses in their last 11 games.
3. Dallas Mavericks – The Mavericks very nearly secured a No. 1 seed, but their 1-2 record against San Antonio hurt their chances. Besides, when you don't win your conference – or the Southwest Division title, in this case – you can't be a top seed.
4. Miami Heat – The Heat, despite losing to Phoenix twice in the regular season, get the fourth seed based on a strong finish to the season. A weak conference (the Southeast) led to a poor strength of schedule, but the committee couldn't help notice that the Heat won 15 of their last 18 games.
5. Phoenix Suns – The Suns are the highest-scoring team in the country, but can they stop anyone? They'll be tested severely by their 12th-seeded opponent. Remember, this is the dreaded 12 vs. 5 matchup where there's always an upset. Look out.
7. New Jersey Nets – The committee loved the Nets' strong late-season push and the Atlantic Division tournament championship.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers – It's been a rollercoaster season, but Cleveland plays in a power conference and has a brutal schedule, and the committee likes teams that aren't afraid to play good teams. Plus, we like watching LeBron James play.
9. Memphis Grizzlies – The committee loves irony, and remember, with a bounce of a ping-pong ball, LeBron would have been a Grizzly. But when Memphis didn't win the lottery, its pick was given to Detroit as part of a past trade, leaving the Pistons to give a scholarship to Darko Milicic.
11. Washington Wizards – The Wizards get shipped West to face the Clippers, but they feature an explosive trio of scorers in Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Washington could easily advance to the next round.
12. Sacramento Kings – A rowdy home-court advantage will give the Kings a shot at the upset over the Suns. The question is whether or not the team can adapt well enough to midseason transfer Ron Artest.
13. Indiana Pacers – The Hoosiers, uh, Pacers, have had an up-and-down season with injuries and academic casualties. But with great coaching from Bob Knight, I mean Rick Carlisle, Indiana is in the tourney once more.
14. Los Angeles Lakers – The longtime powerhouse has had a down season, but after an NIT appearance last season, the Lakers are just happy to get an invitation. Can senior Kobe Bryant lead his band of freshmen and sophomores to the upset of Dallas? Doubtful.
15. Milwaukee Bucks – The Bucks' record isn't good, but a fourth-place finish in a power conference – the Central Division – is a result of a difficult schedule. Milwaukee's RPI is high enough to get it into the dance, where the Bucks will try to put the slippers on and become this year's Cinderella.
16. Philadelphia 76ers – The Sixers come from a mid-major conference (aka the Atlantic Division) and therefore haven't played much of a schedule. Can they play with the big boys? No, but Allen Iverson will have a chance to show the nation what he's all about.
Philadelphia (16) vs. San Antonio (1) – Spurs in five.
Memphis (9) vs. Cleveland (8) – Grizzlies in six.
Sacramento (12) vs. Phoenix (5) – Suns in seven.
Indiana (13) vs. Miami (4) – Heat in five.
L.A. Lakers (14) vs. Dallas (3) – Mavericks in five.
Washington (11) vs. L.A. Clippers (6) – Clippers in seven.
Denver (10) vs. New Jersey (7) – Nuggets in six.
Milwaukee (15) vs. Detroit (2) – Pistons in four.
Memphis (9) vs. San Antonio (1) – The Spurs' experience wins out over the young but improving Grizzlies. Pau Gasol has emerged as a star, but it's not enough to beat Duncan and company. Spurs in six.
Phoenix (5) vs. Miami (4) – Must-see TV. The Heat try to run with the Suns early in the series without much luck, but they eventually pound away with Shaq to get back into it. In the end, however, O'Neal can't keep up with the frenetic pace set by Steve Nash, and Phoenix's constant double-teaming bothers him enough to make a difference. Suns in seven.
Denver (10) vs. Detroit (2) – More irony. The Pistons could have drafted Carmelo, instead they took Darko. Tayshaun Prince has heard enough about Anthony, though, and he makes it his personal mission to shut 'Melo down. Pistons in five.
Phoenix (5) vs. San Antonio (1) – The Spurs are still the best team in the West because they can beat you at any game. Phoenix tries to outrun San Antonio, but Tony Parker's penetration and the Spurs' stifling defense proves too much for the Suns. Spurs in six.
Dallas (3) vs. Detroit (2) – Avery Johnson's club has improved dramatically on defense, but this Detroit team is just too balanced for the Mavericks to stop everyone. From one game to the next, a different Piston takes care of business, and Detroit outlasts a game Dallas team. Pistons in seven.
Detroit (2) vs. San Antonio (1) – It's a rematch of last year's title matchup. These are clearly the two best teams in the NBA, and this marks a fitting ending to this year's NBA Madness. Another seven-game series goes down to the wire, but this time, the Pistons win the whole thing, using superior quickness on the front line to dominate the glass and win the championship. It's Detroit's "One Shining Moment," and as Jim Nantz waxes poetic, Richard Hamilton walks away with the Most Outstanding Player award.
- San Antonio