Dallas was miserable to start the season, playing without Dirk Nowitzki or a defense to speak of. Things were not any better in Miami. However, both teams have been on a run lately, and that has gotten those two teams in the conversation for the eight seed in their conferences. Both are climbing up the rankings here as well.
1. Warriors (43-8, Last Week No. 1). Stephen Curry is back to playing at an MVP level. After the Christmas Day loss to Cleveland, the Warriors put the ball in his hands for more pick-and-rolls, he worked to be more aggressive, and while his shots went up by three per game his three point percentage went from 39.7% before Santa to 46.2% after Santa. Big game this week is Kevin Durant returning to Oklahoma City on Saturday night.
2. Spurs (39-11, LW 2). Gregg Popovich is now the winningest coach with one team in NBA history, and his team just keeps racking up wins after win. By the way, he had to pass Utah’s Jerry Sloan to get that title. Monday night in Memphis the Spurs kick off their annual rodeo road trip, with nine of their next 10 games away from home.
3. Cavaliers (34-15, LW 4). It’s become trendy to say the Wizards are the hottest team in the East since Dec. 1 (they have the best record in that stretch), and Boston is climbing fast, however the Cavaliers remain the class of the East. The Cavs have righted their ship, won four-of-five (despite Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving missing some time), and remain the team to beat in that conference. Great test against the Wizards Monday night, however. They are still looking for a playmaker to add to the roster, but don’t expect something until right at the deadline.
4. Wizards (30-20, LW 5). What has helped turn the Wizards around this season? As we discussed in the latest PBT Podcast, featuring Wizards’ Insider J. Michael of CSNMidAtlantic, credit Scott Brooks. The coach simplified the defensive game plan and has not changed it when things got rough for a stretch (former coach Randy Wittman changed things all the time). Second, Brooks has lightened up the practice schedule, giving guys time to recover more, and with that John Wall, Bradley Beal and others are staying healthy.
5. Celtics (33-18, LW 6). Winners of seven in row and 11-of-12, and that includes knocking off the Raptors and taking control of the No. 2 seed in the East. All of that was enough to make Brad Stevens the Eastern Conference All-Star Coach. Isaiah Thomas is on a roll, but the Celtics have the sixth best defense in the NBA during the win streak, they have been strong on the boards, and that’s been the biggest difference.
6. Rockets (37-17, LW 3). Houston is 5-5 in its last 10 and the reason is the three ball is not falling for them anymore — they shot 33 percent from beyond the arc in January, and 31 percent through the first week of February. Trevor Ariza is a big part of this slump, but it’s bigger than just him. Houston has a soft schedule coming up which should allow them to turn this streak around.
7. Jazz (32-19, LW 7). Gordon Hayward had some big games last week, and he and Rudy Gobert both put up 25 in a game (which makes this team very difficult to beat). Plus, the Jazz are 17–4 when George Hill and Hayward both play. But the thing I liked best last week was the strong games from Joe Johnson playing a little small ball four, which gives this team even more versatility.
8. Hawks (30-21 LW 8). Tim Hardaway Jr.’s 23-point fourth quarter on the second night of a back-to-back — sparking a comeback win — was one of the more impressive performances of the season. (Just wanted to remind Atlanta sports fans of a good comeback win for them, it’s going to be a rough few days.) Interesting tests ahead for them this week against the Jazz, Nuggets, and at the Kings.
9. Pacers (28-22, LW 12).. The have won six in a row and have put themselves in the mix for home court in the first round of the playoffs (they are just a game back of four seed Toronto). The key to this run has been defense, where the Pacers have given up less than a point per possession over their last six. The real test comes this week, can they keep this up against the Thunder, Cavaliers, and Wizards?
10. Thunder (30-22, LW 9). They dropped three in a row after the Enes Kanter injury, but they got a good wins over Memphis and Portland, and look like they may be finding ways to score without their reserve big man. The good news for OKC is after a brutal January the team is home for most of the month and will get the chance to stay afloat without Kanter (and figure out how to win without him).
11. Grizzlies (31-22, LW 11). This ranking seems too low for a team getting monster nights from guys like JaMychal Green — he is knocking down threes, defending, and his matured game will get him paid this summer. Their offense has looked great against lesser squads, but this week the Spurs and the Warriors are on the schedule to provide real tests.
12. Raptors (31-21, LW 10). Fell to Celtics last Wednesday, and while they can rightly point out DeMar DeRozan missed that game, it still stung. This team has gone 3-7 in their last 10 and have a bottom 10 net rating in that time, and this recent run of play has them all the way down to fourth in the East (and it would be worse if Kyle Lowry didn’t hit a ridiculous game winner last week against New Orleans.
13. Heat (21-30, LW 20). This team has won 10 in a row and is now just two games out of a playoff spot in the East. All after Justise Winslow went down injured. Erik Spoelstra could/should end up on some Coach of the Year ballots for getting this roster — which has talent but not great fitting talent — to come around and perform at any reasonable level, especially playing lock-down defense during their streak.
14. Clippers (31-20, LW 13). Los Angeles is 2-5 on a rough stretch of games that has them mostly on the road (to make way for the Grammys at Staples Center). Los Angeles’ offense has been good since Blake Griffin’s return — he’s an underrated playmaker and their shooters are knocking down shots — but the defense has been terrible. Four more games on the road coming up, including at Toronto and Utah.
15. Bulls (25-26, LW 15). Nothing seems to go smoothly for this team. Chicago had arguably its two best offensive performances of the season in wins over Philadelphia and Oklahoma City, only to lose Jimmy Butler for a stretch with a bruised heel. The Bulls are trying to hang on to a playoff spot as they go through a six-game road stretch, they split the first two but Butler’s return could have a lot to do with how the next four games go.
16. Pistons (23-28, LW 19). Andre Drummond continues to put up numbers in the middle (he remains a beast on the boards, but his growth seems to have plateaued this season. When Detroit gets wins it’s because Drummond gets help like he did last week from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jon Leuer and Marcus Morris. Detroit needs more of that help if they are going to hang on to a playoff slot out East.
17. Nuggets (22-28, LW 14). In the falling-up battle to get the final playoff slot in the West, the Nuggets are in the playoffs as of today, but are going to need more consistent play — starting with star Nikola Jokic — if they plan to hold off Portland or suddenly-hot Dallas. Also, how will the Nuggets handle swirling trade rumors the next couple of weeks around Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler?
18. Mavericks (20-30, LW 23). Yogimania has swept through Dallas — rookie Yogi Ferrell came in on a 10-day contract out of the D-League to provide point guard depth, and since then he has averaged 17.8 points a game and shot 52 percent from three. He dropped 32 on Portland. So Farrell is getting a two-year deal this week. The Mavericks have games against the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Jazz this week — if they are going to make the playoffs they need to get wins in games like those.
19. Trail Blazers (22-30, LW 16).. The search for something that works defensively in Portland may have found a relative solution with the team starting Evan Turner and Noah Vonleh (although Al Farouq-Aminu gets the late-game run, not Vonleh). They lost to Dallas last week, but they get another shot this week and that is the kind of game a playoff team needs to win.
20. Hornets (23-28, LW 17). They have dropped seven in a row and their offensive game has struggled since Cory Zeller went down, which is why the team made the moved to trade for Miles Plumlee (and take on a lot more salary to do it). This team’s up-and-down defense this season is definitely down of late. Charlotte has fallen out of the playoffs in the East and if they are going to turn that around it needs to happen with this four-game homestand (because the next seven after that are on the road).
21. Knicks (22-30 LW 21). There are two more weeks of Carmelo Anthony trade drama this team needs to play through (I still think they can’t find a new home for him until this summer). This team has really missed Derrick Rose and will be happy to get him back this week. They got a strong games from Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez last week, which is promising for the future.
22. 76ers (18-32, LW 18). Joel Embiid has missed eight of nine games for the Sixers, and not so coincidentally the team is 3-6 in that stretch. Robert Covington being out the last three also has dramatically hurt Philly’s defense. Jahlil Okafor is still available via trade, but word on the street is the Sixers are asking a lot more in return than other team are offering.
23. Kings (20-31, LW 24). The Kings are 2.5 games out of the playoffs and if things are going to change for this team it needs to happen over the next few weeks — nine of their next 11 are at home. The win over Golden State was a very good start. Then again, the ugly loss to the Suns speaks to the unpredictable nature of this team. Who knows if we will see more Jekyll or Hyde during this homestand, about the only thing we can expect are big games from DeMarcus Cousins.
24. Bucks (22-28, LW 25). Trading Miles Plumlee was all about saving millions of dollars as of next July, when their team needs re-sign Jabari Parker. The good news for the Bucks is Kris Middleton is expected to play starting Wednesday and this team could use him as they remain just half a game outside the playoffs as of Monday.
25. Pelicans (19-32, LW 22). They have lost four straight games and the problem isn’t Anthony Davis or Jrue Holiday — they are putting up numbers — it is everyone else on the roster that is struggling. There’s always a distraction from what is going wrong in New Orleans, and that is the All-Star Game coming to town, which means more pictures of their King Baby mascot to creep you out.
26. Timberwolves (19-32, LW 26). The loss of Zach LaVine for the season is crushing to this team’s already faint playoff dreams — LaVine was the starter usually out there with the struggling bench units to provide some points and stability. Brandon Rush seems to be the starter, but the second unit is the concern. Just hope LaVine — who had taken real steps forward with his game this season — can bounce back from this torn ACL.
27. Magic (20-33 LW 27). Orlando is a team to watch the next two weeks — not on the court, but heading into the trade deadline. They are looking for a home for Serge Ibaka (who is not likely to re-sign there) but considering they gave up Victor Oladipo and the pick that became Domantas Sabonis to get him, the Magic want quality back. Other teams are not interested at that price. Same basic thing with Nikola Vucevic. Will Orlando come down a little, and will the market rise up to meet them?
28. Suns (16-35, LW 28). The Suns as a team continue to flounder, but one of their guards usually provides plenty of entertainment. Not long ago it was Eric Bledsoe’s string of 40-point games, but more recently it has been the 27 points in a quarter performance by Devin Booker.
29. Lakers (17-36, LW 29). Magic Johnson coming on board as an advisor to ownership means Jim Buss is on his way out (will Mitch Kupchak join him is the question). However, the Lakers should not abandon the idea of building their nice young core. Sure, D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and on down the line have had their ups-and-downs, but if you trade nice young players for slightly above average veterans to get a few more wins now you’re the Isiah Thomas Knicks.
30. Nets (9-42, LW 30). Because it’s not been a hard enough season in Brooklyn, here’s another reminder that Yogi Ferrell — who is having a breakout run in Dallas — started the season with the Nets but they released him. The team is playing hard but has lost nine in a row.