Dec 29, 2010, 4:36 PM EST
No, this is not the NFL, where regular-season dominance translates into a playoff bye.
But this season, there just might be a similar reward forthcoming in the NBA.
With all due respect to the Bulls and Jazz and others teams perhaps outplaying their expectations to this point, each conference appears to have three prime championship contenders.
In the East, there are the Celtics, Heat and Magic.
In the West, the true championship contenders appear to be the Spurs, Mavericks and, yes, still, Lakers.
And that could make a No. 1 seed particularly meaningful this time around, because it would mean avoiding the dreaded inside passage, first a No. 2 vs. No. 3 conference semifinal and then a likely conference final against the No. 1 overall seed.
Does an aging Celtics roster need to engage the Magic before facing the Heat?
Or, turning it around, does a Heat team yet to experience playoff life together, first need the misery of pushing past Dwight Howard before getting to the Celtics?
For the fragile Lakers, might Mavericks followed by Spurs simply be too much for what appears to already be a fatigued roster?
Last season, the Celtics mocked the notion of regular-season barometers, advancing to the Finals as a No. 4 seed. But as we’ve since learned, the Cavaliers were headed for a huge fall and the Magic was on the verge of a significant makeover.
This season, though, there are enough gimmes on the schedule that staying close to the top shouldn’t be problematic, unless, like the Lakers, you wind up losing to the Pacers and Grizzlies and Bucks.
Currently, the Lakers hardly have the look of a team able to get past the Mavericks, let alone the Mavericks and the Spurs. They could use something a bit softer as an appetizer, be it the Jazz or Thunder or Nuggets.
As the calendar turns and the dog days of the NBA season approach, it would be easy to minimize the schedule. But in each conference, first place this season comes with a prize, namely fresher legs headed into the conference finals.
No, there is no first-round bye attached, like with the Falcons and Patriots, but there is an opportunity to buy some time until the latter stages of the playoff. And this season, that could mean plenty.
Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.
Dec 21, 2014, 12:30 PM EST
Everything went wrong for Sanders and the Bucks last year.
Dec 21, 2014, 11:00 AM EST
Why else would trade rumors surface 20 games or so into his first season in Charlotte?
Dec 21, 2014, 9:30 AM EST
The Thunder are right to be cautious here.
Dec 21, 2014, 8:00 AM EST
The Bucks went heavy with Brandon Knight at the end of the game. That went about as well as you’d expect.
Dec 21, 2014, 12:46 AM EST
Nine assists but shot 3-of-11.
Dec 21, 2014, 12:16 AM EST
He can do better.
Dec 20, 2014, 10:30 PM EST
A final look back at Rondo’s time in Boston as he gets set to make his debut with Dallas.
Dec 20, 2014, 9:00 PM EST
Cavaliers are tied with the Pistons for 23rd in defensive efficiency.
Dec 20, 2014, 7:11 PM EST
Kings are looking to make a splash, and Williams has been made available in trade by the Nets.
Dec 20, 2014, 6:30 PM EST
Dragic will opt out of the final year of his deal to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Dec 20, 2014, 5:00 PM EST
An expletive was added for emphasis.
Dec 20, 2014, 3:30 PM EST
No contact on the perimeter, yea he’s up for that.
Dec 20, 2014, 2:00 PM EST
The Christmas Day slate of games is (mostly) stellar.
Dec 20, 2014, 12:30 PM EST
Dunk of the year by Johnson had Drummond throwing elbows.
Dec 20, 2014, 11:00 AM EST
Rivers saw this coming just four games into the season.
Dec 20, 2014, 9:30 AM EST
Lin understands why Bryant always gets the ball in these situations, but admits he’d like to get some opportunities.
Dec 20, 2014, 8:00 AM EST
As the Thunder ended up winning by one, 104-103, this block ended up being very important.
Dec 20, 2014, 2:07 AM EST
Lillard needs to get mentioned with the game’s top point guards.
Dec 20, 2014, 12:49 AM EST
Young earned this one and will get to write a check to the league.
Dec 20, 2014, 12:02 AM EST
Former NBA player now trying to make his way as a fighter.
- Rajon Rondo was very Rondoesque in debut with Mavericks (VIDEO) 12
- Report: Kings discussing trade for Deron Williams with Nets 12
- Report: Multiple teams contacting Suns trying to trade for Goran Dragic 10
- Clippers rip officials after being called for seven technical fouls in loss to Nuggets 18
- Jeremy Lin after Kobe misses at the buzzer: ‘I like game-winners too’ 58
- Damian Lillard drops career high 43, leads Blazers to 3OT win over Spurs (VIDEO) 8
- Kendrick Perkins: Rajon Rondo wanted out of Boston 8
- Report: Minnesota agrees to trade Corey Brewer to Houston 7