Counting down the Elite Eight

This is my favorite time of the regular season.

Three and a half months of play have winnowed out the contenders from pretenders. There are, to be sure, great stories in Memphis and Denver and Milwaukee and Cleveland, and those teams will likely contend for postseason berths no one thought possible at the start of the year. But now the focus starts to shift, gradually, to the big boys, the teams with the real shot at the ring. They take inventory of themselves like a guy in a hurry for a date, patting his pockets before he leaves the house.

Car keys? Check.

Movie tickets? Check.

Veteran backup point? Check.

Defensive-oriented big man? Check.

Sacramento and San Antonio and Minnesota and the Lakers and Dallas and Indiana and Detroit -- and, again, New Jersey. They circle one another, casting wary eyes to their right and left. These are the Elite Eight, the teams that have the best chance of winning it all -- and Dallas makes the list only because of the respect I have for Dirk Diggler, Fin Dog, 'Toine and Nasty Nash. Each team has clear and present strengths -- but each has some major league question marks. And I've found that superstars are always more candid about their teams and their chances.

"We've got Wally (Szczerbiak), we've got Kandi (Michael Olowokandi) coming back," Kevin Garnett says. "I'm excited, man. What I've learned from previous second halves of the season is that you've got to come out the box quick, fast. February is an important month, and March is probably more important. Luckily, I have a lot of good veterans that understand that concept."

Just about every real contender has put a number up on the board that gets your attention. Entering play on Tuesday, the Wolves were 20-6 since the New Year. Sacramento was 19-6; Indiana, 18-5. The Spurs have won at Houston, Sacramento and Minnesota in the last two weeks. The Lakers lurk; no one has forgotten that they were 18-3 out of the box when the Big Four was healthy. Detroit was the only team among the contenders that added a major, major piece for the stretch drive, in Rasheed Wallace. And New Jersey hasn't lost since a week before the Super Bowl -- "We've got our swagger back," Jason Kidd says -- even though this is how Kenyon Martin responded when asked to finish the following sentence: "If Lawrence Frank showed up on the blacktop in Dallas ..."

"... He wouldn't get no run," Martin said.

But whatever Frank is selling, his players are buying.

"He works hard," Martin says. "He spends endless hours that he puts in the office watching film, doing all the little things that don't nobody see. And he was doing that before he was head coach. When you know how hard the guy works, you have to respect that. We'll get in (after a game) at two or three in the morning, and he'll go in his office and watch film. ... No matter what time of the night it is, or what time of the day it is, if you want to shoot, he'll get dressed. Not a lot of coaches would do that."

And yet ... something sticks out with each team, something -- or someone -- that has to improve if that squad is going to be playing in June.

  • Mavericks.
    Strengths: Firepower. No one in the L can match the offensive possibilities of the Big Four, along with Antawn Jamison and rookie Josh Howard.
    What Needs Work: Is there any doubt? Not only are the Mavs second-worst in the league in points allowed, they're fourth-worst in field-goal percentage allowed and last -- last -- in the league in rebounds allowed. Maybe some of that is due to their jump-shooting nature (Dallas is third in the league in rebounding, after all), but the Mavs just don't make defense a priority.

  • Pistons.
    Strengths: Interior D. With Rasheed Wallace aboard, the Pistons should be even harder to handle in the paint. Now, Ben Wallace can go back to being the help defender he was for most of last season, when Cliff Robinson frequently took on the opposition's best low-post scorer.
    What Needs Work: The bench. With Darko Milicic officially a project, the Pistons have been a man short all season. And after moving so many players in the Rasheed deal, they're even shorter. Corliss Williamson can't have many off nights.

  • Pacers.
    Strengths: Toughness. The Pacers get up into you and can shut you down. But if Ron Artest is out for a while, Indiana loses much of what makes it unique. The Pacers have physical toughness in Jermaine O'Neal, Artest and Jeff Foster, and who's tougher mentally than Reggie Miller?
    What Needs Work: Point guard consistency. Jamaal Tinsley has won the spot outright from Kenny Anderson, and you can't help but root for him, but I think the Pacers wouldn't mind avoiding Stephon Marbury in the first round.

  • Lakers.
    Strengths: The Talented Two. There still isn't anyone who can handle a healthy Shaquille O'Neal and a motivated Kobe Bryant. And it's not like Gary Payton and Karl Malone, whenever he returns, are strangers to the postseason grind. Plus, with all the injuries the Lakers have had this season, the bench has improved with all the extra work.
    What Needs Work: Transition D. There are nights when L.A. looks old and tired. If the Lakers get Denver or Memphis in the opening round, they could have more trouble than you think.

  • Timberwolves.
    Strengths: Balance. KG, Latrell Sprewell or Sam Cassell can each get 20 to 25 points on a given night, and no one seems to care who has the ball at the end of a game. Gary Trent, Troy Hudson and Szczerbiak can certainly get theirs, too.
    What Needs Work: Man-to-manliness. No one plays a better zone than the Wolves, but will Garnett be able to continue logging huge minutes in the hole? Olowokandi has to make his presence felt defensively, especially if Minnesota has to take on Tim Duncan or Shaq in a later round. A big if.

  • Nets.
    Strengths: Transition offense. As you have seen over the last month, the Nets haven't forgotten how to run. And no one can keep up with them when they do. Not only is Kidd the best passer in the game, Martin may be the best finisher.
    What Needs Work: Richard Jefferson's jumper. When he's hitting from the perimeter, the Nets can't be beaten. But that's the shot the Spurs gave him in the Finals, and it's the shot the Pacers and Pistons will give him in the playoffs this year.

  • Kings.
    Strengths: Passing. No one moves the rock around like the Kings. Brad Miller had never averaged more than 2.6 assists before he came to the 'Mento; this season, he's close to five a game. And no team moves as well without the ball, which leads to more assists.
    What Needs Work: See Dallas. The Mavs get all the heat for not playing much D, but the Kings aren't much better: 24th in field goal percentage allowed, 25th in points allowed. There has been major slippage from last season, which seems to be directly correlated to the departure of Keon Clark and Jim Jackson from the Kings' bench.

  • Spurs.
    Strengths: Team defense. Gregg Popovich has a philosophy that everyone buys into, and which has transcended the retirement of David Robinson. The Spurs just do not give up easy shots. Ever. There is always a hand in the face and a body in the paint.
    What Needs Work: Rasho Nesterovic. Others may say free throws, but San Antonio was 26th and 24th from the line in its two championship seasons. I believe the Spurs' key to a repeat is Rasho. "From where he started and where he is now, it's light years," Duncan says. "They've done a great job with him. They've really stayed on him all year long. ... He's a key. He has to play well for us."

    Two months to go until the playoffs. Eight teams. One ring.

    "We're not arrogant or cocky to the point where we're blinded," Garnett said. "We understand how the league works. You can't be stuck on yourselves. Teams have got some injured players and we're in a nice rhythm ourselves, and we're doing some things right. But we also know that there are some things that we don't do well, and we're trying to work on that. ... Everybody has their own dilemma, and we're no different."

    Hubie's '10' commandments
    When Hubie Brown broke into the NBA in 1973, his first job was as an assistant in Milwaukee. The Bucks had a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and an old Oscar Robertson, and Bob Dandridge, and Lucious Allen, and Jon McGlocklin. They were loaded. And so, they didn't go very deep into their bench.

    "Players nine, 10, 11 and 12 were (ticked) off every day," Brown recalled. "Every day. And so you'd come to practice. And Larry (Costello) would say -- Larry was a great coach -- he'd say 'All right, you take care of those four guys.' "

    From that came the roots of Brown's philosophy, which is to play just about everyone he has in uniform on a given night. And it's no different three decades later in Memphis, where Brown's Grizzlies go 10 deep just about every night and wear down the opposition. Brown did it in Kentucky with the ABA Colonels, and in Atlanta with the Hawks, and in New York with the Knicks.

    "Playing that amount of guys, what you're saying is, OK ,we might be young, we might be inexperienced, but we're going to give you more energy in that 48 minutes most nights," Brown said. "And if our style is forcing turnovers, blocking shots, and steals ... that takes energy on a nightly basis. So by playing guys and then letting them develop, you develop a talent base. So now when you call to make a trade, you know if those guys can play or not. Today, with the salary cap thing, you want to get into as many two for ones, three for twos (trades), because people know that the kids can play."

    No one plays more than 32 minutes a game. Basically, you play up to eight minutes at a crack, and you come out. Seven players have played in 50 or more games this season, and it's really more than that; Bonzi Wells has been on the floor every night since he came from Portland, and only injuries have limited Jason Williams to 47 games.

    But it wasn't an easy sell.

    "It was tough at first," forward James Posey said. "You come in and you're right back out. But while you're in there you just have to be productive, do your job. If you do that, things will come. It's not going to change, so just accept it and do your job."

    When Posey was signed by Memphis to an offer sheet in the summer, he figured he was going to get to hoist a lot of shots.

    "Honestly, I did start out like that," he said. "I'm like, man, I'm going to be here so long. But I was still getting familiar with the system. Now I understand where my shot is going to be coming from and the flow of the offense. It's a lot easier. It's not necessarily about the shots, but just trying to be productive while you're in there."

    The other players say pretty much the same. It's like they're the Stepford Grizzlies. But when you've already set a franchise record for wins, and the playoffs are in sight, you tend to drink the Kool-Aid. Brown has gotten them to accept his edict: Team success ultimately begats individual success. And if there's an injury in the playoffs, instead of throwing an unproven body out there, you can rely on someone that's played all season long.

    "We win (recently), and a guy comes in and goes, 'Boy, you guys are really deep. You have 10 guys,' " Brown said. "I said, 'You know why we're deep? Because we play them.' Everybody's got them, but you've got to play them. I mean, there are all kinds of kids sitting on benches, eight (through) 12. And that's my thing when I do clinics for coaches: What are you doing for players nine, 10, 11 and 12? What are you doing for them?"

    And the Logo would really like to get rookies Dahntay Jones and Troy Bell on the floor.

    Around the League
    The Nuggets have some work to do this offseason. They're letting their coach, Jeff Bzdelik, dangle without a new deal. And now, I hear that a Western Conference foe has its sights set on wooing Denver GM Kiki Vandeweghe, despite the Kikster having two more years on his current contract. Stan Kroenke should step in and make sure both of his guys are happy; it would be a shame if Denver's rebuilding plan was derailed so soon after it began. ... Given what they had to go through to get Rasheed Wallace, you figure the Pistons will gladly pay the $200,000 fine levied by the league for playing him before last week's trade went through. Detroit first thought it had Wallace three weeks ago, when it had verbally agreed to a three-way deal with the Blazers and Phoenix. Wallace was to go straight to Detroit from Portland, with Bob Sura and Zeljko Rebraca going to the Suns and another Piston going to the Blazers. Jahidi White would have been routed to Portland as well, and Paul Allen would have gotten $1.5 million each from Detroit and Phoenix. But at the last minute, Allen changed his mind. So the Pistons had to watch while Wallace went to Atlanta. And even last week's trade almost fell through on Thursday when Boston nearly pulled out of the three-way with Detroit and Atlanta. The Celtics, already jittery about Chucky Atkins' knee, became alarmed when doctors found an undetected lump. A biopsy was negative, however, and when Atkins passed his physical, Boston was back on board. ... The Mavericks better make hay while the sun shines: their March schedule is brutal, with 11 of 16 games on the road, including dates at Minnesota, San Antonio, Houston, Sacramento, Indiana and New Jersey.

    David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.