How will things end up in April? Hollinger's Playoff Odds gives us a window into the future, based on the data. Now our subjective panelists weigh in on what their magic eight ball is showing them:
1. Fact or Fiction: The Thunder will finish with the West's top seed.The Playoff Odds says: Oklahoma City has a 42.6% chance of winning the West.
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Fact. It's a three-way race, with the Spurs and the Clippers in the conversation. But for as well as the Thunder have played so far, it seems to me they can play much better. They have been working through new approaches, roles and personnel. But late in the season it'll be time to dial in.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: Fiction. I'll take my chances with the field. The Spurs and Clippers are both deeper teams, and we know that they can handle significant injuries. Can the Thunder? That core has been remarkably healthy for a few years now, but Kevin Martin is no ironman. It feels like they might be due.
Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: Fact, or at least they have the inside track. Gregg Popovich has made it clear that chasing seeding is not nearly as important to the Spurs as rest and health, which effectively makes it a two-horse race between the Thunder and Clippers. Saying that, I'll take the Thunder's remaining Finals fury over the Clippers' depth.
Rashad Mobley, Truth About It: Fiction. The Thunder are dependent on strong performances from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook every night, and they are bound to slow down a bit before ramping things up for the playoffs. The Clippers are playing above their heads right now, and they'll slip a bit, while Memphis might or might not trade Rudy Gay, which will disrupt chemistry. The Spurs, as cliché as it might sound, are deep, consistent and savvy enough to steal that top seed
Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Fact. The Thunder have, if not the best player in basketball, the player who's playing the best basketball in Kevin Durant, the most efficient offense in the sport and, if the Kings deal goes through and pro hoops returns to Seattle, will be unburdened by the crushing karmic weight of the whole "every success they have tortures a once great NBA city" thing. Pencil them in for the top spot.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Heat will finish with the East's top seed.The Playoff Odds says: Miami has a 52.4% chance of winning the East.
Abbott: Fact. The second half of the season will be neither a coronation nor a cakewalk. Based on schedule and margin of victory, Hollinger's Playoff Odds picks the Heat as the most likely team to win the conference, and that thing can't see that the Heat have, at times, looked like a team that's coasting. Also, research shows past title winners are better at "turning it on."
Foster: Fact. The Knicks look like a bunch of zombies defensively, the Pacers would punt on offense if it was allowed, the Nets need a version of Deron Williams that doesn't exist, the Celtics need a time machine for Paul Pierce, the Hawks need shock therapy to stop Josh Smith from shooting jumpers and Chicago still needs Derrick Rose. The Heat win by default.
Levy: Fact. Recent swoon aside, the Heat are still firmly the best team in the East. They've lost twice to New York but boast a more efficient offense, paired with a stingier defense. Chicago is currently predicted to finish eighth, but a healthy Derrick Rose could change that. Avoiding him in the first round should keep the Heat interested.
Mobley: Fact. The current standings show the Knicks -- who are 2-0 against the Heat this season -- are just one game back of the Heat, and the Danny Granger-less Pacers are just 2&189; games back. But there is no way the Heat relinquish home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, which would mean possibly facing the Pacers or the Knicks in a Game 7 on the road.
Sunnergren: Fact. David Foster Wallace once wrote that the most interesting aspect of a peak-level Pete Sampras tennis match was the way he, in the early rounds of a big tournament, slowly calibrated his game so he exerted the least possible amount of effort that still guaranteed victory. The Heat are calibrating.
3. Fact or Fiction: Two Pacific Division teams will make the playoffs.The Playoff Odds says: Only the Clippers (100%) and Warriors (90.1%) will get in.
Abbott: Fact. The Clippers and Warriors will make it, barring injury. Will the Lakers make it? It's the million-dollar question of 2012-13, and with each passing week, the answer looks increasingly like "no." But it's nearly impossible to count them out. Remember what I said in question No. 2 about past title winners being about to "turn it on."
Foster: Fact. The Clippers and Warriors will make it. The Jazz and the Lakers are having a real battle to see which team can be worse defensively, but while Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter represent real upgrades and could be in line for more playing time soon, the Lakers have no such hope as currently constructed.
Levy: Fact. The Clippers and the Warriors look like locks. It's hard to count out the Lakers, but they're doing their best to make it easy on us. That leaves the Trail Blazers and the Jazz fighting for the eighth seed. Portland has been playing terrific basketball lately, but the Jazz are much deeper and have the potential to swing a season-shifting deal with Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap.
Mobley: Fiction. The Lakers will join the Clippers and the Warriors as Pacific Division representatives in the playoffs. Despite the kerfuffle their current play and injuries have caused, it is difficult to believe that aging stars Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, along with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, will not be able to string together enough victories in February and March to get the seventh or eighth spot.
Sunnergren: Fiction. Three Pacific Division teams will make the dance. The Clippers will coast to a 2-seed, the renascent Warriors won't be too far behind, and the Lakers will make a late push past Utah, Minnesota and Portland to earn the West's final spot.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Knicks will win the Atlantic Division.The Playoff Odds says: New York has a 59.2% chance of winning the division.
Abbott: Fact. I'll tell you who won't win it: the Celtics, which is one of the surprises of the first half. Whether it's the Knicks or the Nets who take it instead is something of a toss-up. The Nets would be the favorites if Deron Williams is really back to being an elite point guard, as was the case for a game or two recently. But it's safer to count on the Knicks to be the better team.
Foster: Fact. This is assuming, of course, that Carmelo Anthony stops fasting and actually eats something. He'll need all the energy he can get to carry the oldest roster in NBA history across the finish line, but at least reinforcements are on the way with Iman Shumpert and Raymond Felton expected to return soon.
Levy: Fact. The Nets have been on a tear, winning eight of their past nine. That sounds great until you see that five of those wins came against Charlotte, Cleveland, Washington, Sacramento and Phoenix. This division absolutely still belongs to the Knicks.
Mobley: Fiction. It is quite possible that the Knicks played their best basketball in November and December, and injuries and old age might cost them some victories during the regular season. P.J. Carlesimo has Brooklyn playing inspired basketball now, but eventually even that will subside. The Boston Celtics, similar to the Lakers, will play better after the All-Star break and steal the Atlantic.
Sunnergren: Fact. Recent mean-reverting wobbles aside, the Bockers have more than enough firepower to hold off Brooklyn and Boston teams that are built on more declining assets than the 2008 CDO market. If I made a word cloud that described my feelings about Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, "confidence" would not be in it.
5. Fact or Fiction: The Wizards are the worst team in the NBA.The Playoff Odds says: Washington is projected to finish 20-62, worst in the NBA.
Abbott: Fact. But they're also a team that counts on John Wall to make it all work, and he has just returned. Look out, Bobcats.
Foster: Fiction. I know, I know. But look, the Wizards have Wall and Nene back, Bradley Beal is coming around ... things are looking up! I'll go with Phoenix, mainly because Marcin Gortat called them a sinking boat. And because Michael Beasley is still on that boat.
Levy: Fact. They've been respectable defensively but epically horrific on offense. Their offensive rating of 95.7 is the 13th worst in NBA history, just 0.5 points per 100 possessions better than last season's Bobcats. Wall might be back, but he's still surrounded by some of the least efficient offensive production ever assembled.
Mobley: Fact. Wall's return, Beal's rising confidence and the continued health of Nene and Jordan Crawford will lead to an improved Wizards team. But considering they've lost 28 of the first 34 games, and the Charlotte Bobcats lost 18 straight and still have a better record, the Wizards are absolutely the worst in the NBA right now.
Sunnergren: Fiction. The Wizards have been a dreadful basketball team in 2012-13, but the addition of Wall improves them to just very, very bad. Besides, it'll take a lot worse than a 6-28 start to wrest the "worst team in the NBA" title from Charlotte.