The very top of the rankings remains stable, but the Wizards are climbing fast — and this isn’t a hot streak, they are healthy and legit. Also rising fast is Miami, where Eric Spoelstra could put himself in the mix for magician, er, coach of the second half of the season.
1. Warriors (41-7, Last Week No. 1). They are 14-2 in the last 16 games and still have the No. 1 ranked offense and defense in the NBA. Stephen Curry has stepped back onto center stage, averaging 28.6 points, 6.6 assists per game in the last five. The next big question for Steve Kerr? If he deploys his four All-Stars in one lineup as promised — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green — then who is the fifth player? And will Green try to recruit him?
2. Spurs (36-11, LW 2). San Antonio when focused is very good, see the win over Toronto this week (and Cleveland last week) as examples, but then they drop two in a row to the Pelicans and Mavericks (the Spurs have lost two in a row just four times in the past two seasons). The losses are not going to drop them in these rankings (in part because the best teams behind them have stumbled as well), but they are 4.5 games back of the Warriors now and will not catch them.
3. Rockets (35-16, LW 3). James Harden is just ridiculous, scoring 51 points against the Sixers Friday to notch his second 50-point triple double of the season, the first player ever to that. They have gone 4-5 in their last nine, but now have 8 of 10 at home and seven of those games are against teams below .500, look for them to get right.
4. Cavaliers (32-14, LW 4). I feel like I should hashtag every story lately about Cleveland with #eliteteamproblems. Could they use another playmaker/backup point guard to match up with the Warriors? Sure. It also will help when J.R. Smith returns. Did they have a mid-season swoon? Yes, but so what? This team is still the clear class of the East and is on a path to return to the Finals. However, in the short term five of their next six are on the road.
5. Wizards (27-20, LW 10). This team is for real. They are 8-2 with the second-best net rating in the NBA over their last 10 games (Golden State) — and that includes knocking off Boston last week. More than that they are doing it over time, the Wizards are 21-9 since Dec. 1. They maybe the five seed, but they are just two games back of the two-seed Celtics and in that mix. Expect the wins to keep coming with the Knicks, Lakers, and Pelicans at home this week.
6. Celtics (29-18, LW 8). While Celtics fans — and Danny Ainge — are on the hunt for the next big trade, this team has slid into second place in the Eastern Conference. They can cement that standing by beating the Raptors Wednesday night at the Garden in an interesting showdown — lose that game and the Raptors have the tiebreaker between the teams. Boston has four at home this week before spending most of the rest of the month on the road.
7. Jazz (30-19, LW 8). They faced three West playoff teams last week (as of today) — Thunder, Grizzlies, Nuggets — and lost all of them. Utah has dropped five in a row against West playoff teams. That said, as the Clippers stumble without Chris Paul the Jazz are primed to grab the four seed and hold it (Utah is just half a game back), giving them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
8. Hawks (28-20 LW 6). The Hawks don’t win the easy way, they had the dramatic comeback win against the Bulls and the 4OT game against the Knicks last week. However, they also had ugly losses to the Clippers (without CP3 or Griffin) and falling by 26 to the Wizards. Atlanta has the net rating of a .500 team and to me it feels like the Hawks are performing over their heads, meaning the likely regress to the mean at some point.
9. Thunder (28-20, LW 11). We will see if they can sustain this ranking without Enes Kanter, he was playing well for them off the bench before taking his frustrations out on a chair and fracturing his arm. Look for more run for Joffrey Lauvergne. OKC has gone 7-7 through a rough January schedule (with one game left in the month, vs. San Antonio) and then the schedule eases a little. Westbrook has 24 triple-doubles this season but his efficiency has slipped — he’s shooting 38.7 percent overall and 29.2 percent in his last 10 games.
10. Raptors (29-19, LW 7). Finally snapped their five-game losing streak by beating the Bucks, then turned around and lost to Magic on Sunday. If your a Raptors fan looking for bright spots at least DeMar DeRozan seemed to snap out of his slump on Sunday. Key game against Boston this week, win and they secure the tiebreaker with that team. Also, Kyle Lowry on the jumbotron was one of the best moments of the last week.
11. Grizzlies (28-21, LW 12). This team continues to just kind of float along down the river, going 5-5 in their last 10 with two wins over the Jazz and one against the Raptors, but falling to the Trail Blazers and Bulls in there. This team can beat anybody or lose to anybody on any given night. The Grizzlies are two games into a six-game road trip but the good news is that as that ends the schedule softens up for them for a while.
12. Pacers (25-22, LW 14).. C.J. Miles has been put in the starting lineup and the Pacers have rattled off three wins in a row (including over Houston), making them look mildly more secure in the playoff chase (four games up on the nine-seed Pistons). The other reason for the hot streak? All-Star Paul George has played phenomenally, he carries this team.
13. Clippers (30-18, LW 9). As noted by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann on twitter, the surprising thing is that with Chris Paul out the Clippers get dramatically worse on defense — in the dozen games he missed this season they have allowed 115.2 points per 100 possessions. It’s a bigger issue than the offense. Oh, and trading for Carmelo Anthony is not going to help their defense. The Clippers have six of their next seven on the road, and the one home game is Golden State on Thursday night.
14. Nuggets (21-25, LW 17). They have the best offense in the NBA over their last 10 games, scoring 116.9 points per 100 possessions. That has propelled them to a 7-3 record in that stretch and has them holding on to the eight seed (by 1.5 games over Portland so far). That offense gets tested this week by the Spurs and Grizzlies. Nikola Jokic wasn’t going to make the cut as an All-Star this season, but next year could be a different story — other teams are starting to have to game plan for him.
15. Bulls (24-25, LW 15). Did Sunday’s win over Philadelphia mean Chicago has put all the ugliness of internal squabbling — Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler calling out their younger teammates’ effort, Rajon Rondo calling out Wade and Butler’s leadership, and a team meeting — behind them? We will find out as the Bulls head out on a tough six-game road trip that this week has them in Houston and Oklahoma City.
16. Trail Blazers (21-28, LW 20).. Evan Turner is in the starting lineup and Portland has played well with him paired alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Not that it was enough to beat a shorthanded Warriors team on Sunday. Portland needs wins, three games back of the eight seed Nuggets in the loss column. Also, Lillard reached and impressive milestone last week.
17. Hornets (23-21, LW 13). They are 4-10 in January and have lost four in a row. Worse yet, they have lost seven in a row on the road and now head out on a tough three-game road trip (Blazers, Warriors, Jazz). Kemba Walker is a deserving All-Star, but the man needs some help if this team is to hold on to (or improve on) the eighth seed, and he’s not getting it.
18. 76ers (17-29, LW 18). Joel Embiid, we miss you, get back on the court quickly please (I think he’ll be the first replacement in the East if injury forced someone to drop out of the All-Star game). Sixers fans see the recent run of success, their team only five games out of the playoffs, and have started to dream… sorry, but I think that dream is dead. Although not to the point of it being impossible, which alone is a credit to how far this team has come.
19. Pistons (21-26, LW 16). This team has come apart on the defensive end of the floor, which is why they are on the outside looking in at the playoffs. That starts with Andre Drummond, who should be a better rim protector than he has been this season. We know Reggie Jackson is not being traded for Ricky Rubio, the question is will he be traded for anyone else (probably not at the deadline, but you never know).
20. Heat (18-30, LW 27). Winners of seven in a row, and that includes knocking off the Warriors and Rockets. Eric Spoelstra is doing it with smoke and mirrors, starting with getting this team to play great defense. Plus the coach is getting some strong backcourt play from Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters.
21. Knicks (21-28 LW 21). The Knicks have had more drama the past week than a Real Housewives episode, all of it starting because Phil Jackson has come to the realization most Knicks fans did last summer that Kristaps Porzingis is the future, and they should try to move Carmelo Anthony. That said, Anthony has played well of late and doesn’t deserve to be booed (save that for the rest of the roster around him). My guess is that Anthony is not moved at the deadline, unless Jackson is willing to take back a ridiculously poor deal. This summer might be a different story.
22. Pelicans (19-29, LW 22). They beat the Cavaliers and Spurs last week, which helps keep their playoff dreams afloat somewhat (they are 3.5 games back of the eight seed). It helps that nobody in the West seems to want the eight seed, but the Pelicans need to start racking up wins. Which will be difficult heading out on road to Toronto, Detroit, and Washington this week.
23. Mavericks (17-30, LW 24). Dallas needed shooting in the lineup, they started Seth Curry and have gone 6-3 since then — Curry has averaged 15.1 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from three in his recent starts. With a good draft pick this year, Wesley Matthews staying healthy (he’s played well of late) and Harrison Barnes continuing to grow in his new role, you can see a path back to the playoffs for this team next year. Especially if they can land a couple quality free agents this summer.
24. Kings (19-28, LW 25). They picked up three road wins last week, but with this streaky team it’s difficult to read much into that. The guy to start watching in Sacramento is Malachi Richardson, the rookie out of Syracuse, who has started to look like a solid NBA wing — the guy the kings hoped Ben McLemore would be. Richardson has bumped McLemore from the rotation.
25. Bucks (21-26, LW 19). They have lost eight of nine. A large part of that is Giannis Antetokounmpo — a deserving All-Star starter — but it’s also that this team’s defense isn’t great, particularly out at the arc, and so they never pull away and games tend to be close and dramatic. They sit 1.5 games out of the playoffs but strike me as the team most likely to climb back into the mix once they get Kris Middleton back in February.
26. Timberwolves (18-29, LW 23). They have won eight of their last 10, and with seven of their next nine games at home you can’t count them out of the playoff chase quite yet (they are 3.5 games back of eight seed Denver). Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have played well, but it is an improved and now solid defense that has them at least still in the playoffs conversation.
27. Magic (19-30 LW 28). This team’s odd-fitting roster looks even worse with shooters like Evan Fournier and Jodie Meeks out injured. Also, Bismack Biyombo got a homecoming win in Toronto last week. The most interesting news around the team is all the trade interest in Nikola Vucevic, who seems destined to be out the door before the Feb. 23 trade deadline, although don’t we think that every year? Maybe this year it happens, it would help unclog the front court in Orlando.
28. Suns (15-32, LW 26). The backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Devin Harris is really clicking for the Suns, and Bledsoe was a legitimate candidate to be an All-Star reserve (he was done in by how bad the team has been). Of course, all the nice offensive play is moot when you can’t get a stop, and the Suns are 27th in the NBA in January (and 25th for the season) on the defensive end of the court.
29. Lakers (16-34, LW 29). Intending to or not, the Lakers are making a push to keep their pick this season (it is top three protected, otherwise it goes to the Sixers). Thanks to recent runs by Dallas and Philly, the Lakers have the third-worst record in the NBA. The progress seen from the team’s young stars earlier in the season has faded over the team’s recent stretch, for example Brandon Ingram is shooting 8.7 percent over the team’s last three games. The real offseason question in Los Angeles: Does Jim Buss keep his job?
30. Nets (9-38, LW 30). Teams have scored at least 100 points against them in 23 straight games. Granted, they play at the fastest pace in the league (104 possessions per game) so that has a lot to do with it, but still 23 straight. You want something positive? Um… Caris LeVert might develop into a rotation player. That’s all I got.