Roughly halfway through the NBA season, the playoff picture is coming into view -- sort of. In the Eastern Conference, there's currently a great divide between the top eight teams that would make the playoffs and the squads that would miss out.
Out in the Western Conference, it's more convoluted. The competitive curve that's closer to the top of the Eastern Conference is more toward the bottom of the Western Conference's playoff bracket, meaning it's likely that the drama toward the end of the season is there.
The Eastern Conference
There are eight teams currently in the playoff picture, and there might be only reshuffling of those eight moving forward.
The No. 1 through No. 8 seeds are only within 5 1/2 games of each other, and then there's a large distance between the No. 8 team and No. 9 team. In the sixth through eighth seeds are the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, in that order. The latter two teams sit at 19-17.
The No. 9 seed at present are the Philadelphia 76ers, who are four games back of the Bucks and Celtics.
The Sixers could benefit from the return of Andrew Bynum after the All-Star break if all goes well. If they win two road games at Milwaukee before the break and don't completely struggle otherwise, they'll be in decent position in late February onward should Boston or Milwaukee continue on their current paces.
At four games back right now, Doug Collins' team will hope to chase down Milwaukee considering the Celtics have awoken from a slumber to win their last five. Boston only has a weak, five-game Western road trip that stands out on their schedule in the second half of the year.
While the 76ers have a number of favorable home games after the All-Star break, including another against Milwaukee, they must still must face Atlanta and Miami on the road twice each.
While not impossible because of the potential return of Bynum, the Sixers will have to improve throughout the season to have a shot. And they'll have to chase down, in all likelihood, a Milwaukee team that's still a bit of a mystery after the firing of Scott Skiles.
And to get it out of the way, the Toronto Raptors are the No. 10 seed and 5 1/2 games back of the No. 8 seed. It would take a huge turn of events for the Raptors to be in the conversation with road games against Milwaukee, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago and New York all to be played out this season.
The Western Conference
Now, we get to the complicated Western Conference.
At this point, there are three teams (Denver, Houston and Portland) within two games of one another in the sixth through eighth positions in the West. After that, there are three teams (Utah, Minnesota and the Lakers) who are within four or less games of the current No. 8 seed in the Trail Blazers.
There's work to do for all six of those squads.
Denver has a heavy dose of Eastern Conference flavor on the schedule in February, but the Nuggets have three games to play against the Rockets. Those outcomes could end up being huge for both squads.
Houston looks to be in good standing, especially toward the end of the season when it plays one elite squad (Memphis) and only one other winning team (Portland) in the final nine games.
Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers face an uphill battle to remain in the playoff picture. They have a six-game road trip upcoming that includes Minnesota, Houston and Miami before another road trip ends with Chicago, Atlanta and Oklahoma City.
The Jazz, like last year's playoff clinching win with two games to go against the Phoenix Suns last year, could again find themselves sneaking in by their hairs. The current No. 9 seed has two dates with the No. 10 seed Timberwolves in the teams' final four games of the year.
And the Lakers, well, still have a bit of talent. Their April slate doesn't look promising if they're still in the conversation come then. Mike D'Antoni's team has games against the Grizzlies, Clippers, Spurs and Warriors, not to mention contests with fellow playoff hopeful teams in Portland and Houston.